September 2019, (Editor Note: This article originally appeared in 2017 but is worth repeating because of its ability to demonstrate how much water we use without giving it much thought… In the future, this will have to change or the lack of water will negatively impact the quality of our lives…)
How do we get Americans to conserve water? The first step is to show just much water it takes to make the average American’s lifestyle possible. But water conservation means a lot more than the typical advice to take shorter showers and wash fewer loads of laundry. While such actions are important, there are other ways to save much more.
Those who use GRACE Communications Foundation’s Water Footprint Calculator know that diet makes up the largest part of our individual water footprints. This is part of what’s called “virtual” water use, or the amount of water required to produce the food we eat, energy we use and the things we buy. Even though the water consumed to produce these items can’t be seen or felt, it comprises the majority of our water footprint.
Agriculture’s Big Water Footprint
In the United States, agriculture is a major surface and groundwater user. In fact, a full 80 percent of all consumptive water use in the US comes from agriculture. When the historic California drought hit two seasons ago, many were shocked by what were once considered arcane facts about the water used to produce our food. Headlines about how it takes just over one gallon of water to produce an almond were common.
Generally, the water footprint of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses (like beans) is smaller than that of meat, dairy and nuts. Beef is the king of big water footprints: It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is because cattle are physically large, have relatively long lives, eat so much food and are rather inefficient at converting feed to meat (compared to, say, chickens). In the United States, most beef cattle are raised on feedlots for a large portion of their lives, and while there, they eat feed made from grains like corn, sorghum, barley and oats – lots of it. It takes a tremendous amount of water to grow feed, especially the grains that go into cattle feed. This can be problematic for strained water resources when those crops are irrigated.
In addition to water for animal feed, how and where water is used has a large impact. Crops grown in areas with abundant rainfall tend to put less pressure on water resources. On the other hand, thirsty crops grown in arid locations or areas prone to drought can challenge sustainable water use when irrigation is necessary. There are additional challenges when vulnerable water sources are used to boost crop yields. For example, irrigation nearly doubled from 2002 to 2016 in the water-stressed Republican River basin through parts of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.
Competition between different types of water users is another source of trouble. A large share of US crops are grown in areas where such competition for water exists, as is the case in California and other arid Western states, the drought-prone Southeast and even the Great Plains where a major aquifer is being drained from agricultural overuse. Different sectors, including energy, industry, residential and the natural environment, all have specific water demands that compete with agriculture.
In the end, no location is immune from drought or water resource problems, even if only on a temporary basis. As rainfall and drought patterns continue to shift and intensify, water supplies will become increasingly stressed, which will have an inordinate effect on farming and food production. To use water more sustainably, farmers and food companies find that they must measure and understand how water is used along the production chain, which helps them recognize the extent of their water use and identify areas where they can cut back. At the same time, farmers, ranchers and other producers must be aware of water pollution that occurs within the process. This is important because pollution increases water use since more water is required to help clean up pollution.
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