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Two Surprising Ways to Save Water

Updated on May 15, 2014

Home Water Use is Just a Drop in the Bucket

Much of the western United States is currently battling an unprecedented drought with severe consequences looming on the horizon. Over a dozen communities in California face the possibility of completely running out of water by mid-2014, and Nevada is in a race against time to complete a new water intake valve before the rapidly dwindling Colorado River drops so low that the state is no longer able to draw water from the existing intake.

So what's an eco-conscious consumer in the western states to do? The experts suggest turning off the tap water when brushing our teeth, watering our lawns less and getting energy-efficient dishwashers and washing machines. All of these are excellent ideas that we should definitely heed. There's only one problem - only a small fraction (about 2%) of all freshwater water usage in the US is used in daily home activities like these. The vast majority of water in our country is used by two industries. Here's where the rest of the water is going and what you can do about it.

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1. Save Energy, Save Water - The hidden cost of electricity

largest water consumption by category
largest water consumption by category

Where does most of the water used each day in the US go? It might surprise you to know that the electric industry is responsible for the greatest majority of water withdrawals. Nuclear and fossil fuel plants use about 200 billion gallons of water per day, or close to half of the 410 billion gallons of water withdrawn from all water sources every day, according to the US Geological Survey (see chart above). And that number is going to keep going up. The World Energy Council estimates that water consumption to create electricity will more than double in the next 40 years.

The good news is that water used for electric power production is often returned to the water bodies from where it was taken. So it's often not even included in discussions about water use. But if the water needed to produce electricity is going to double in the next 40 years, how are we going to come up with that water?

If smog, the fear of climate change and high electric bills aren't enough reasons to be conserving energy already, the added threat of water shortages makes the issue even more pressing. National Geographic says that the typical American relies on 670 gallons of water every day simply for energy production. The EPA says it takes 3000 - 6000 gallons of water to power a single light bulb for 12 hours a day for a year. Startling? Then about about this statistic? An article in Earth Techling quotes a report from the Oregon-based River Network that says an average home "takes an average of 39,829 gallons of water to meet our monthly energy use, five times more than our direct residential use of water."

So if we want to save our water, we need to save energy. It's that simple. Shutting off electronics when nobody's using them, installing energy-efficient lights and appliances, and taking other steps to reduce your energy use is a good first step. It won't, of course, help you convince your water agency that you're conserving water to meet voluntary or mandatory reduction goals, and it's not immediately going to mean more water in your local district. But it will help slow the increase in water needed to generate power for an electricity-hungry population.

Water Use Per Person, Per Day

Source: EPA

virtual water water footprint app
virtual water water footprint app

2. Change Your Diet, Save Water

Smart food and product choices can help you conserve

If you remove the electric industry, crop irrigation is by far the largest single source of water use in the United States. Each day, irrigation consumes 128 billion gallons of water. Of course, we all need food to eat, but the amount of water required to create various types of food and crops varies greatly. You can help save water by learning more about the relationship between water and the food you eat.

For instance, a pound of tomatoes (90% of which are grown in California), requires 24 gallons of water to produce. A pound of what requires 132 gallons. A pound of beef, however, takes 1799 gallons.

But it's really not as simple as saying, "Don't eat beef." Medical doctors, animal rights advocates and sustainability experts have long touted the benefits of a vegetarian diet, and there are, indeed, many benefits to this lifestyle, including the ability to grow food with less water. But water is required to make just about everything we eat, drink and use.

Want a glass of wine with dinner? It takes 1008 gallons of water to create a gallon of wine. How about some fries with your meal? That'll cost you 119 gallons for a pound of potatoes. And what about some ice cream for dessert? A gallon of milk requires 880 pounds of water to produce, much of it due to irrigation water needed to grow food for the cows. (See The Hidden Water We Use on National Geographic for these and other food breakdowns.)

So what do all these numbers mean? Should you give up beef, wine and ice cream completely? No. You don't need to throw away your entire lifestyle overnight. But understanding the complex relationship between food and water will help you make more informed choices. There's a cost to everything we eat, buy and use, and that cost isn't distributed equally. The T-shirt you're wearing took 713 gallons of water to create, but the savings by not buying another one might be in India, China or Guatemala. Much of the food you eat, however, is grown here in the US, so your eating choices are likely to have a greater local impact. By becoming aware of the water required for the food you eat, you can help conserve water right here where we need it the most.

If you've got an iPhone, be sure to check out the Virtual Water app. Created by the Virtual Water Project, this app that can help you become more aware of the hidden water we use every day, not just in the food we eat, but also the clothes we wear and other products we use.

The Global Water Crisis - How Much Do We Really Use Every Day?

Have you ever wondered how much water you really use every day? This video will make you think about the hidden ways in which we consumer this precious natural resource.

Read More - Good books to help you learn more about the relationship between food, water and lifestyle choices

Understanding what we eat and how it impacts our bodies and our world may change the way you view food. But don't take my word for it. Check out some of these popular books written by experts.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Selected as one of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year, this bestseller examines what we eat and why.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

A classic bestseller that examines how fast food has changed the way Americans eat.


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    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      4 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Something I thought about many years ago with regard to the dry areas of Africa was whether it was economically feasible to take the salt out of sea water and to pump it inland, thereby providing a source of fresh water, which could at least be used to irrigate crops and to help top up the water table.

      The power for pumping would use tidal or solar/wind energy. I know this would take a lot of investment, but surely it must be feasible and could help those areas with insufficient water.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Good Lens

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @Brite-Ideas: Thank you. I'm glad it was helpful.

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @Corrinna-Johnson: We could save a lot more this way than by taking shorter showers, that's for sure. (But we should still take shorter showers!)

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @TapIn2U: Glad you enjoyed it.

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @MaggiePowell: Maggie, I've spent most of my life in California and thought I was water conscious, but I really had no idea how much was used for energy production. You're right - there's still so much more I can do!

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @aesta1: You're absolutely right, aesta. Most of the water we use comes from "hidden" sources. Calculating your water footprint can help you understand where it's all coming from:

    • LisaDH profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @SusannaDuffy: Susanna, aren't you in Australia? I was really impressed to learn there's a desalination plant there that's powered completely by wind energy. I think we could learn a few things from the Aussies. ;-)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Although making decisions on local realities is good, there will still be implications globally. I am amazed though at the effect of managing our use of electricity on water.

    • TapIn2U profile image


      4 years ago

      Good to know! Let's start saving water. Sundae ;-)

    • Corrinna-Johnson profile image

      Corrinna Johnson 

      4 years ago from BC, Canada

      Very informative article! If everyone would do these two things, imagine the water that could be saved!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      As a Californian, and the child of a farmer, I was raised with water conservation deeply instilled in my everyday life... still, there is so much more I can do.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      4 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Excellent research here. Where I live, we practically count every drop of water from our taps and shower in 60 seconds,so water is always on our mind

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 

      4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      very helpful and thorough page, thank you for all the research and info so nicely compiled - pretty much I learned a lot !


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