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Why Are We Talking About Beef on World Water Day?

3/22/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: World Water Day, water consumption, water conservation

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailThis morning, to mark World Water Day, I measured my H20 consumption using National Geographic’s Water Footprint Calculator. After decades of living in the arid West, I’m a pretty good water miser, but I got nervous when I realized that toilets, taps and hoses were the least of my water worries. The average American uses nearly 2,000 gallons a day—twice the global average—and nearly 95 percent of that is hidden in the food we eat, the energy we use, the products we buy, and the services we rely on.

Uh oh. Not flushing the toilet every time and never letting the water run when I brush my teeth might not be enough.

Producing one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water. Pork requires 576 gallons of water per pound, chicken requires 468 pounds, and 1 gallon of milk requires 880 gallons of water. A whopping 50 percent or more of the water we use goes to grow and process the food we eat; meat and dairy are particularly water-intensive. I knew my three cups of coffee per day would kill me here. Indeed, my diet is by far my biggest water hog, demanding 898 gallons (the national average is 1,056). To learn more about your food’s water footprint, check out Treehugger’s excellent article “From Lettuce to Beef, What’s the Water Footprint of Your Food?” 

The next thing I learned is that a gallon of gasoline requires nearly 13 gallons of water to produce. The average American relies on nearly 670 gallons of water a day just for electricity production. In my case, driving a hybrid car helps negate the huge impact of my plane travel, which elevates my footprint whenever I do these calculations.

In a post this morning on NatGeo NewsWatch, National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra L. Postel points out that thermal power plants are the single biggest draw on rivers and lakes in the United States. Thermoelectric generation accounts for 49 percent of the water withdrawn from U.S. water sources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. “On average it takes about 23 gallons of water to produce 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity,” Postel reports. “That means a typical refrigerator can use 40 gallons of water a day--not at your home, but at the power plant that produces your electricity.”

Phew. The calculator tells me that I use an average of 1,072 gallons of water per day, less than the national average of 1,981. (I chalk this up to Meatless Mondays, telecommuting and lack of money to buy stuff.) I’m relieved, but I’m not convinced that I’ve attained water enlightenment. More than 1 billion people on our planet lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Water Council. Because the average American uses twice as much water as the rest of the world, I still have a ways to go, if I’m thinking globally. I’ll start with National Geographic’s wonderfully comprehensive list of freshwater resources and 10 things I can do to reduce water use. 

I may have to reduce my coffee consumption and implement Carless Tuesdays to make it happen, but by next year I hope to have that number down below 1,000.

water glass 

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