Examining California’s Water Footprint

by Rick Paulas


Before talking about “water footprint,” it’s probably best to explain it. Whereas water usage is simply the measure of how much of the life-giving liquid people are using on a regular basis (taking a shower, watering the lawn, etc.), water footprint’s a bit more all-encompassing.

Let’s say you’re eating a burger and drinking a glass of water for dinner. Water usage would just take a look at how much water is in that cup. Water footprint, meanwhile, accounts for the liquid, but also figures in how much water it took to create the beef patty, how much water went into making the bun, how much water was used in the cultivation of the lettuce and tomatoes, the ketchup, the mustard, and so on. As such, water footprint paints a much different and more complete picture for how much water everyone actually uses. Which is why this study from the Pacific Institute is getting so much attention. For the first time, we have a comprehensive look at just how much water Californians use on a daily basis. And it’s a lot:

1,500 gallons of water a day.

That’s how much the average resident of California goes through. Read that again.  Fifteen-hundred gallons a day.

While this number isn’t quite out of the norm from the rest of the United States — water footprint is pretty uniform across the country — it well outpaces the rest of the world. “Our water footprint is much larger than the global average,” says Heather Cooley, one of the study’s authors, “in part because we consume more meat and dairy products, and simply because we consume more products. We have more computers, more cell phones, more stuff in our lives. And there’s a water requirement for all of it.”

What’s surprising about the information specifically regarding California, however, is that the state actually brings in more “virtual water” (another phrase for what’s calculated in water footprint) than it sends out. “I had sort of assumed we were a net exporter of water,” says Cooley. “Agriculture is a big part of California’s history, and some of that is exported and feeds the rest of the United States and world. I had assumed that’s where most of our water was going.” But instead, California ends up importing more virtual water than it sends out. Which is where things can start to get scary.

If there’s a drought in the Midwest, or Mexico, or China, it will affect the goods and services that are coming into the state. “We often perceive water management as a local issue,” says Cooley. “We only think about our local community, and whether there’s enough water available to fit our needs. But because of the movement of goods and services, we are more closely linked to water conditions in regions outside of our borders.” Simply having a rainy year locally isn’t enough to satisfy all of our consumption needs anymore. The world has to have a good rainfall.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t positives in the globalization of water consumption. As Cooley points out, by everyone being linked, it reduces the vulnerability of local water supplies. (The flipside to a drought in China now affecting us, is that a drought in California won’t be as disturbing locally as it once was.) Globalization means that water management is no longer a local issue, but a world one.

Meaning, the amount of water we’re each using daily is one hell of a drain on the rest of the world. “Water is an essential ingredient in almost everything we’re using,” says Cooley, “whether it’s to grow a crop or produce a pharmaceutical, all sorts of things require water, and large amounts of it.” And 1,500 gallons a day, per person, is an extraordinary amount of that essential ingredient. So if you’re consciously turning off the faucet while washing dishes, or limiting your time in the shower because you want to conserve, that’s great and everything, but you’re missing the big picture.

“There’s two ways we can reduce our personal water footprint,” says Cooley. “That’s through consuming less in general — cell phones, computer, furniture, all of those things.” But there’s also simple dietary changes a person can make on a daily level to cut down on the water they’re consuming. “Meat and dairy products are generally very water-intensive,” says Cooley, “so on a personal level, we can reduce our water footprint by using less of those things.” In other words, put down that double cheeseburger and pick up some more fruits and vegetables. Not only will you be doing your body a great service, but also you’ll be helping to save the world.

Editor’s Note:  The concept of the “water footprint” isn’t new.  Here’s a website devoted to the topic that has such features as a personal water footprint calculator.

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