Let’s Talk Water: A Series of Blogs by P. J. Lazos


waterburgerConsider the cow. It takes one gallon3.6 liters — per 100 pounds of body weight to water a cow and two gallons when it is hot outside. If Bessy is lactating, you need to double those numbers. However, that doesn’t account for the amount of water it takes to grow the hay or corn for Bessy to eat, or the gallons upon gallons it takes to butcher her and scrub the factory floor clean when the job is done. When you run the numbers, growing food is a water intensive business. If people don’t have access to water they don’t have food, and if it’s tainted water, the food will not be that stellar either. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for about 70% of all fresh water usage, and in water poor regions, residents may need to choose between taking a shower or growing their beans/greens.[1]  

From the moment you get up in the morning, water is an integral part of your day. Maybe the first thing you do is avail yourself of the bathroom and flush. If you have a low flush toilet you use 1.6 gallons of water (6.05 liters) and if not, it’s between 3.5 and 7 gallons (13.2 and 26.5 liters). Then you wash your face and brush your teeth. If you let the tap run wide open while you’re doing these things, you’re using 2 gallons per minute (7.57 liters). It goes pretty quickly when the water flows so readily, eh, but two gallons is a lot if you have to buy it at the grocery, carry it home, and store it in your house until you need it. And two gallons barely gets you through your morning toilette. If you’re conservation minded, which I hope you are, you’ll only turn the water on to rinse and spit.

waterfootprintNext is breakfast. Do you drink coffee? If you make a full pot, 12 cups, that is about 100 ounces. There are 2 cups in a pint (16 ounces), 2 pints in a quart (32 ounces), 4 quarts in a gallon (128 ounces). Cheers — your entire coffee pot uses less than one gallon of water (3.7 liters). But wait, there’s more. The coffee beans. They take water to grow, about 35 gallons of water (132 liters) per one cup of coffee. In fact, the world’s population uses an insane amount of water to grow coffee beans, accounting for 2% of crop production worldwide. Are you having an egg with your coffee? Then tack on an additional 50 gallons (180 liters) of water to your daily total. 

Off to work. Are you putting on your button down cotton shirt? If so, that shirt costs the earth 650 gallons (2,460 liters) of water in irrigating the plant, rainwater evaporation, and dilution of wastewater from fertilizers and manufacturing. Do you take notes at work? If so, do you use paper? It takes 100 gallons (360 liters) of water to produce 40 sheets of paper. That includes copier paper. Whoa. On to lunch. Do you have a sandwich? Well, one slice of bread takes ten gallons (38 liters) of water to produce or about 200 gallons (757 liters) per pound. The glass of milk you pair with your sandwich requires 54 gallons (204 liters) of water to produce while apple juice (for those of you who are lactose intolerant) has a smaller water load — about 17.5 gallons (66 liters).

How about dinner? One 12 oz. steak takes — wait for it — 1,300 gallons (4,921 liters). Prefer chicken? It takes 500 gallons (1,892 liters) for one pound of chicken. The number reflects feeding and watering the animal until maturity, slaughtering the animal, and getting it to market. Potatoes take 100 gallons (378) to grow. Corn accounts for 8% of the global water usage in agriculture although to be fair, this is corn that both you and Bessie will consume.

Granted these numbers are estimates and subject to some interpretation, but it’s clear that every day we each use thousands of gallons of water that we weren’t even aware of using. While we don’t all have to become vegetarians, there is a good case to be made for reducing meat consumption, not only for personal health and wellness, but for the health and wellness of the earth’s entire water supply.

So as you go through your day, keep in mind the hidden water choices you make from minute to minute. Ruminate on the small changes you can make to your life that will save a few drops of water in the moment and hundreds of gallons or liters over time. And enjoy that glass of water you’re drinking. It’s truly the only water-related item that’s exactly as it seems, unless, of course, you consider the water that is needed to make the water supply plant operational, and the water needs of the personnel that make sure that the water in your glass is safe, clean, and even healthy, and, well, you get the picture.

[1] Unless of course they collect their bathwater for watering the fields.Grey water is becoming a big issue in the world of water management 

P. J. Lazos is an environmental attorney practicing in Philadelphia, and the author of “Oil and Water,” an environmental murder mystery about oil spills and green technology. Having traveled extensively, she values her carefree access to clean, potable water and envisions a world where everyone has that same daily experience.