Grain and Virtual Water Storage Capacity in the United States

Paul J. Ruess, Megan Konar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Extensive research has evaluated virtual water trade, the water embodied in traded commodities. However, relatively little research has examined virtual water storage or the water embodied in stored commodities. Just as in physical hydrology, both flows and stocks of virtual water resources must be considered to obtain an accurate representation of the system. Here we address the following question: How much water can be virtually stored in grain storage in the United States? To address this question, we employ a data-intensive approach, in which a variety of government databases on agricultural production and grain storage capacities are combined with modeled estimates of grain crop water use. We determine the virtual water storage capacity (VWSC) in grain silos, map the spatial distribution of VWSC, calculate contributions from irrigation and rainwater sources, and assess changes in VWSC over time. We find that 728 km3 of water could be stored as grain in the United States, with roughly 86% coming from precipitation. National VWSC capacities were 777 km3 in 2002, 681 km3 in 2007, and 728 km3 in 2012. This represents a 6% decline in VWSC over the full 10-year period, mostly attributable to increased water productivity. VWSC represents 62% of U.S. dam storage and accounts for 75–97% of precipitation receipts to agricultural areas, depending on the year. This work enhances our understanding of the food-water nexus, will enable virtual water trade models to incorporate temporal dynamics, and can be used to better understand the buffering capacity of infrastructure to climate shocks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3960-3975
Number of pages16
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019


  • agriculture
  • grain production
  • storage
  • virtual water
  • virtual water storage
  • water-food nexus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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