Madison water main (copy)

Students and teachers from Thoreau Elementary School sign a water main pipe.

The Madison Water Utility is looking to set a new target for reducing water usage in the city after it pumped just under 9.5 billion gallons of water in 2017, the lowest rate in 50 years.

It’s a significant achievement in water conservation considering Madison’s population grew by about 95,000 people in the last 50 years, spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux said.

Water use in the city has followed a downward trend in the past decade, Barrilleaux said.

“People living in single-family homes used about 75 gallons per-person per-day 15 years ago,” Barrileaux said in a statement. “In 2016, that number was just over 55.”

In its Conservation and Sustainability Plan adopted in 2008, the water utility hoped to reduce per capita water usage to 55 gallons per day, but that goal was set for 2020.

Water utility supply manager Joe DeMorett said in a statement that it might be time for the water utility to set a new goal.

More efficient appliances and fixtures have greatly reduced the number of gallons of water a person uses each day, DeMorett said, but people’s attitudes and habits relating to water use have also changed.

“It’s got to be all the low-flow fixtures, in my mind,” DeMorett said in a statement. “And then people just don’t water outside like they used to.”

While residential water use has decreased, commercial production in the area also has dramatically changed, DeMorett said. Dairies and manufacturers used great amounts of water, but many have closed or left the area.

One of Madison’s largest water consumers was Oscar Mayer’s food processing plant. It would use about 400 million gallons of water each year, but it used only 79 million gallons of water in the first few months of 2017 before permanently closing.

The consistent decline of water use in the city combined with improved pumping strategies by the water utility have boosted the health of the aquifer that provides the city’s water, DeMorett said.

The massive sandstone aquifer’s water levels dropped to 130 feet in 1998 — a record low since consistent measuring of the aquifer began in the 1930s.

“We’ve rebounded about 30 feet since the mid-90s, so it’s definitely healthier,” DeMorett said. “It’s more sustainable. We were on this downward trend and now we’re on an upward trend.”

Promoting a healthy aquifer isn’t the only benefit of reduced water use. A lot of power is needed to pump the water up from underground.

“When we pump less, we actually use less energy, so our carbon footprint shrinks,” DeMorett said.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a business and technology reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She can be contacted at (608)252-6143 or

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