What is Your Water Footprint?

What is Your Water Footprint?

Most of us know what a carbon footprint is. For those who don’t, this metric represents an individual’s total, lifecycle burden of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by driving a car, flying in an airplane, buying electricity from our local utility, and other CO2-producing activities.

The burden can be calculated by the month or by the year, but because it is based on some fairly reliable algorithms, remains the same for most of a lifetime. That is, if you drive a car today to get to work, and have done so for the last year, your carbon footprint is unlikely to change until you retire.

. . .

A water footprint, the new kid on the block, is pretty much the same in terms of average monthly or yearly use. You can easily determine the size of yours using one of a number of handy online calculators. Unlike carbon emissions, however, fresh water – once considered a bottomless resource – has recently been shown to be a very fragile element in the overall scope of elements needed for survival. And you can’t reduce the regional impact of water by saving it in another place.

For example, the abundance of water resources in the Great Lakes area does not help drought-stricken farmers in Texas. This is because riparian, or water rights, are owned; in most cases by the state, but in some instances by individual people who have a legal right to a certain amount of water in the form of streams or lakes on their land. In northern California, for example, a homeowner sitting alongside a river is entitled to extract as much water as can be pumped through a ¾ inch hose.

During the first half of the last century, most people – including water managers, scientists and public officials – did not think about diminishing water supplies. In fact, the first time these groups attempted to track fresh water resources, under the umbrella of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), was in January of 1965.

The results, published in June of 1970, in the in-house UNESCO publication, The Courier, called the effort “…man’s first concerted attempt to take stock of his diminishing fresh water resources.” The phrase “global warming” was not even mentioned.

In spite of that, the writer concludes that: “Human activity has brought on unwanted, unforeseen, and poorly understood side effects. (It) already has contaminated the entire world ocean, the atmosphere, and even the remote ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. Most rivers are polluted to some extent and many are nauseous open sewers. Plant cover and soil fertility of vast areas have been destroyed.”

Almost fifty years later, after a drought that ruined crops across 2/3 of the nation, during the hottest July ever recorded in the United States, and (according to the Christian Science Monitor) the hottest year on record, a lot of people have woken up to the fact that fresh water is not an endless resource, and our technology is not yet up to replacing the water we have wasted over the past 42+ years. Even the best desalination units are very expensive and require large amounts of electricity to produce the level of heat needed to evaporate the salts out of the (recaptured) water – which means an environmental tradeoff of more CO2 for more water. That’s not a bargain climate scientists are prepared to make.

Not only was this past summer the hottest on record, but the winter before it was the hottest and driest the U.S. has ever seen, at least in recorded weather history.

We all know we need to do better. Running the water to brush one’s teeth seems like a mental disconnect when one stops to think about it. Does running water improve the process? Do we need running water to accomplish the task?

This simple lack of awareness of the fragility and value of fresh water is largely a product of our education and culture in the U.S. The issue was pushed from center stage by a hundred others, ranging from the dangers of nuclear power to the likelihood that a more-than 2 degree increase in global temperatures would result in massive flooding.

As an example of fresh-water needs just for humans, consider the fact that, in 2002, 120 countries around the world operated about 12,500 desalination plants. Together, the plants generated about 14 million cubic meters per day (m3/day) of potable water. This is less than 1 percent of the water used globally.

What is your water footprint? Is it sustainable? Likely not. To be so, you could use only your equal global share of water. If there are 6.52 million trillion gallons of water, and 7.05 trillion people, than your ration is 1.08 gallons. Try brushing your teeth with running water, taking a ten-minute shower, hosing down your driveway after washing your car, and watering all your landscape plants with that.

I’m in the same boat. In fact, after I did the math, I started to jot down the ways I could conserve more water. We already have low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets, and we don’t water outside, but when push comes to shove I would rather bathe myself than my Toyota.

In fact, fresh water supplies are even smaller than we realize, because a lot of water is tied up in glaciers – try moving one of those with a tugboat! A slightly lesser amount is tied up in ice caps, and some of that is already coming our way as Arctic melt. A measure of water is also required by critical habitats and protected wetlands, and its loss or withdrawal would cause even more species to go extinct. There is also a certain amount of water withdrawn for the various crops that feed this country, from almonds near Monterey, California to hard red winter wheat in North Dakota.

One of the most promising developments in terms of freshwater use and conservation is the idea that governments should institute a mandate or law requiring every consumer product to release its lifetime water footprint, also called cradle-to-grave lifecycle assessment.

Some items would score very high: cotton (blue jeans, sheets and terry towels, even those made of organic cotton); water-based beverages like beer and soda; sugar (from sugar cane); wheat, rice, oats and other grains; and last but far from least, beef and milk.

No one is suggesting that we give these things up, but we may need to change the way we view some of them. Jeans are wonderful, especially when freshly dried and tight rather than baggy, but we might in the future want to consider natural denim rather than  blue jeans dyed with indigo and then washed a thousand times to give them that shabby chic faded look.

We might also buy organic cotton sheets and terry towels, even very expensive ones with high fiber content, and then expect them to last at least a decade, or more like two. I have some hunter green towels I bought in 1999, for a small fortune (though they did let me keep my first born, drat it!) and they are still entirely serviceable.

Sustainability isn’t about impoverishment, but compromise. And compromise is the very thing we need to get the hang of before we make some ultimate and perhaps unforeseeable mistake that makes all carbon-based life forms extinct.


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