The Water Withdrawal Footprint of Energy Supply to Cities

Conceptual Development and Application to Denver, Colorado, USA


  • Elliot Cohen,

  • Anu Ramaswami

    Corresponding author
    • Address correspondence to: Anu Ramaswami, Denny Chair Professor of Science, Technology & Environmental Policy, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, 130 Humphrey School, 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. Email: Web:

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  • Editor Managing Review: Christopher Kennedy


Water footprints traditionally estimate water lost as a result of evapotranspiration (or otherwise unavailable for downstream uses) associated with producing a certain good, and the same embodied in trade across regions is used to estimate regional and national water footprints. These footprints, however, do not address risk posed to city energy supplies characterized by insufficient streamflow to support energy production, such as cooling water intake (e.g., withdrawals) at thermoelectric power plants. Water withdrawal intensity factors for producing goods and services are being developed at the national scale, but lack sufficient spatial resolution to address these types of water-energy challenges facing cities.

To address this need, this article presents a water withdrawal footprint for energy supply (WWFES) to cities and places it in the context of other water footprints defined in the literature. Analysis of electricity use versus electricity generation in 43 U.S. cities highlights the need for developing WWFES to estimate risks to transboundary city energy supplies resulting from water constraints. The magnitude of the WWFES is computed for Denver, Colorado, and compared to the city's direct use of water to offer perspective. The baseline WWFES for Denver is found to be 66% as large as all direct water uses in the city combined (mean estimate). Minimum, mean, and maximum estimates are computed to demonstrate sensitivity of the WWFES to selection of water withdrawal intensity factors. Finally, scenario analysis explores the effect of energy technology and energy policy choices in shaping the future water footprint of cities.