Wisconsin seemingly swims in an abundance of fresh water. Unlike some western states that struggle with empty reservoirs and limits on growth imposed by water shortages, our municipal water supplies facing little threat, even during summer droughts.
Beyond our inheritance of abundant water resources, another explanation is that during the past generation, the state’s water utility customers have steadily purchased fewer gallons. The volume of water sold by Wisconsin’s water utilities has fallen to near its lowest level per person in at least a generation, and likely much longer.
State data show that 574 Wisconsin utilities sell more than 138 billion gallons of water annually for use in homes, businesses, factories, and, to a small extent, irrigation. Since 1997, the earliest available year in our data, statewide total water sales have fallen by 18%, or 30.4 billion gallons — about the same amount of water held in Madison’s Lake Monona.
The record low for water usage was 134.6 billion gallons in 2019, but 2022 was not far behind, at 138.4 billion. This was down from a high of 175 billion in 1998. On a per capita basis, the drop is even more pronounced at 28.5%, from just over 33,400 gallons per person in 1998 to a near record low of 23,300 in 2022.
Of all categories (residential, commercial, and industrial) industrial usage has declined the most, dropping by more than 17.2 billion gallons, or 34%. Like other utility customers, industrial plants have grown more efficient over the decades in water use. Another impact was a decline in overall industrial activity, including papermaking and, at least in some communities, food production.
One important caveat: these data include only gallons sold by water utilities, not total withdrawals of water. It includes water use by business and residential customers who represent the vast majority of water consumers, yet excludes the biggest uses of water such as power generation and agricultural irrigation. To examine those trends, we also analyze data from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which tracks water withdrawals from all sources.
Overall withdrawals in 2021 were 6% lower than the annual average since 2012, and nearly 400 billion gallons less than the amount withdrawn in 2011. The drop was driven by a decrease in withdrawals by power plants, which are by far the biggest water users — accounting for 73% of total withdrawals.
Though Wisconsin has plentiful water resources, reduced consumption has benefits including opportunities to serve new homes and factories more cheaply, lower energy use by water utilities to pump and treat water, less stress on sewer systems and sewage treatment plants, and fewer disruptions to aquatic ecosystems.
As the climate warms and drought becomes more likely across the country, stable access to clean water could make the state increasingly attractive to residents and businesses. Understanding these data can help policymakers monitor and tout this advantage.
This information is a service of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state’s leading resource for nonpartisan state and local government research and civic education. Learn more at wispolicyforum.org.