Direct and indirect urban water footprints of the United States

Christopher M. Chini, Megan Konar, Ashlynn S. Stillwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The water footprint of the urban environment is not limited to direct water consumption (i.e., municipal supplies); embedded water in imported resources, or virtual water transfers, provides an additional component of the urban water footprint. Using empirical data, our analysis extends traditional urban water footprinting analysis to quantify both direct and indirect urban resources for the United States. We determine direct water volumes and their embedded energy through open records requests of water utilities. The indirect component of the urban water footprint includes water indirectly consumed through energy and food, relating to the food-energy-water nexus. We comprehensively quantify the indirect water footprint for 74 metropolitan statistical areas through the combination of various databases, including the Commodity Flow Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Water Footprint Network, and the Energy Information Administration. We then analyze spatial heterogeneity in both direct and indirect water footprints, determining the average urban water footprint in the United States to be 1.64 million gallons of water per person per year [6200 m3/person/yr or 17,000 L/person/d], dominated by indirect water. Additionally, our study of the urban water cycle extends beyond considering only water resources to include embedded energy and equivalent carbon dioxide emissions. The inclusion of multiple sectors of the urban water cycle and their underlying processes provides important insights to the overall urban environment, the interdependencies of the food-energy-water nexus, and water resource sustainability. Our results provide opportunities for benchmarking the urban energy-water nexus, water footprints, and climate change potential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)316-327
Number of pages12
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • embedded resource accounting
  • energy-water nexus
  • urban water footprint
  • virtual water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


Dive into the research topics of 'Direct and indirect urban water footprints of the United States'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this