A robust method for characterizing the biophysical environment of terrestrial vegetation uses the relationship between Actual Evapotranspiration (AET) and Climatic Water Deficit (CWD). These variables are usually estimated from a water balance model rather than measured directly and are often more representative of ecologically-significant changes than temperature or precipitation. We evaluate trends and spatial patterns in AET and CWD in the Continental United States (CONUS) during 1980-2019 using a gridded water balance model. The western US had linear regression slopes indicating increasing CWD and decreasing AET (drying), while the eastern US had generally opposite trends. When limits to plant performance characterized by AET and CWD are exceeded, vegetation assemblages change. Widespread increases in aridity throughout the west portends shifts in the distribution of plants limited by available moisture. A detailed look at Sequoia National Park illustrates the high degree of fine-scale spatial variability that exists across elevation and topographical gradients. Where such topographical and climatic diversity exists, appropriate use of our gridded data will require sub-setting to an appropriate area and analyzing according to categories of interest such as vegetation communities or across obvious physical gradients. Recent studies have successfully applied similar water balance models to fire risk and forest structure in both western and eastern U.S. forests, arid-land spring discharge, amphibian colonization and persistence in wetlands, whitebark pine mortality and establishment, and the distribution of arid-land grass species and landscape scale vegetation condition. Our gridded dataset is available free for public use. Our findings illustrate how a simple water balance model can identify important trends and patterns at site to regional scales. However, at finer scales, environmental heterogeneity is driving a range of responses that may not be simply characterized by a single trend.