‘Unprecedented’: Madisonians are using a lot less water than they used to, water utility officials say

Tap water
File photo

MADISON, Wis. — City officials are citing a number of factors as the reason that Madison had its biggest five-year decline in water use in 2019.

The Madison Water Utility said Thursday that last year, the utility pumped 8.9 billion gallons to homes, schools and businesses across the city. It’s the lowest amount since 1967, and a billion gallons less than the utility pumped five years ago.

“It’s amazing, really,” MWU Water Supply Manager Joe DeMorett said in a statement. “I don’t think anybody predicted this big of a change.”

According to the release, water use in Madison hit an all-time high in 2001, when MWU pumped 12.2 billion gallons of water from wells across the city. Since then, water use has dropped by more than 27 percent.

MWU also tracks the annual per-capita water use of people living in single-family homes, and the utility said the change in that number is even more dramatic. In the early 2000s, people in Madison used an average of 75 gallons per person, per day. Last year, that number was 50.8 gallons, which is a 32 percent drop and a new record low. The 2019 figures represent a drop of 10 gallons per person compared to number from less than five years ago.

MWU General Manager Tom Heikkinen said a combination of factors contributed to the drop: more efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures; the loss of industry like Oscar Mayer, which had been the city’s biggest water user; and a decline in outdoor watering because of several unusually wet summers.

“I think the most surprising thing is the consistency of the trend, it’s almost always in the downward direction,” Heikkinen said. “(Fifty) gallons per person per day on a residential use basis is something that is well below what the textbooks say that you need to plan for a water system. It was not really thought that we would be getting that low.”

Officials said the decline in water use translates into a healthier aquifer system. The city pulls its water from a natural aquifer formed by layers of sandstone deep below ground.

DeMorett, a hydrogeologist, said that aquifer water levels in the center of the city were on a decline from the 1950s to the late 1990s, dropping to a record depth of more than 130 feet in 1998. But over the last 15 years, there’s been a turnaround.

“(The aquifer) is a resource that we’re really blessed to have,” DeMorett said in the release. “You don’t want to go from a surplus to a mining situation where you’re not replenishing it,” he said. “At the current pumping rates, it looks like we are sustainable. In fact, the aquifer levels are actually increasing. I think that’s the biggest thing. We want water for our future generations.”

In 2006, the city set a sustainability goal of a 20-percent drop in per-capita water use by 2020, MWU said. Madison surpassed the goal last year.The utility has been encouraging conservation through its Toilet Rebate Program, which has saved a more than a billion gallons of water since 2009. And more than 12 thousand people are now tracking their daily water use online through the utility’s web-based conservation tool.