Residential use drives overall increase in water consumption during pandemic

Residential use drives overall increase in water consumption during pandemic
Las Vegas. Photo by Dani Molina on Unsplash

By Jeniffer Solis
This story was originally published by Nevada Current.

HENDERSON–Residential water consumption in Southern Nevada spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Looking at water billing and usage from the Henderson Water District covering all users, the study identified a number of trends and shifts in habits around water usage, including that the average Southern Nevada household used up to 3% more water monthly during the COVID stay at home orders. This led to an extra 491 million gallons of water used a month during the first five months of the lockdown compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

“It doesn’t bode well for the future of the Colorado River and Lake Mead,” said Nicholas Irwin, the lead author of the study and a UNLV Lee Business School professor specializing in environmental and urban economics.

During the first month following the stay-at-home period, water usage by residential users increased up to 13%.

Commercial usage in contrast decreased by up to 36% while schools fell by up to 66%. However, those decreases were not enough to make up for the increase in residential water use, leading to a net increase in overall water usage. Residential users comprise 98% of the water district’s user base, according to the study.

Data used for the study was drawn from four billing cycles from March 2020 to July 2020 compared to an average of the previous three years pre-pandemic usage. The study is “generalizable” to all urban areas within Clark County, said Irwin.

Researchers point to new circumstances as the cause: more people were in their homes for more hours than ever before. 

The federal government is expected to declare the first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead next year, meaning Nevada’s annual share of water from the Colorado river would be cut from from 300,000 acre feet to 287,000 acre feet.

The authors of the study warn that as remote work grows, policymakers may need to improve infrastructure and renew efforts to improve water conservation in the state, “especially amongst users in higher-income areas who are not as water price sensitive.”

A wave of new residents to Southern Nevada, a trend that’s made Nevada the fifth fastest growing state in the U.S., will only increase water constraints, warn the authors of the study.

“Developing the appropriate policies to educate new residents on sustainable water usage will be of paramount importance especially in an uncertain climatic future with potentially dire water scarcity in the future,” reads the study.

Nevada officials have also been actively trying to lure remote workers to Nevada in an effort to diversify the economy. In November the City of Las Vegas announced the launch of a campaign to attract remote tech workers to the city.

However “new residents who come in might not be as familiar with our social norms of water conservation,” Irwin said, adding that the state should consider increasing water conservation education.

Irwin’s research team believes the increase in water use is caused by several changes in behavior, like eating in more, higher use of dishwashers, more families buying pools and sprinklers to entertain children stuck at home, and more hand-washing. Irwin added that commercial properties are incentivized to conserve water by installing automatic faucets that shut off and low flow toilets, but those typically aren’t found in residential areas.

“All of these little things add up, a little increase in every household, might not be big by itself but the aggregate is where it really comes in,” Irwin said.

Researchers also warn that if the increase in water use among residential households continues, the state could be on a path to reach its maximum water allocation from the Colorado River, and limit the state’s economic growth.

“If the water isn’t there to guarantee enough water for future development that could discourage residential development, meaning fewer houses,” Irwin said.

“Some businesses that may have moderate water needs may be deterred slightly from coming here unless there’s some assurance that the water usage is going to be there for them in the future.”