Earth Day: Water Footprints

9 Apr

As I admitted earlier, I have a bad habit of taking long showers. It never seemed like a pressing issue until I started to learn more about California’s water problems.


Water is a fascinating and divisive topic in California. I suspect most of the population doesn’t think about water much, but once you start talking to the people who do, you will find that they have very strong opinions on the subject.

The short story of California’s water crisis is that California doesn’t have enough water to meet its needs. There are three major parties interested in water rights in California: household users, agriculture, and environmental groups. Further complicating the situation is the fact that two-thirds of California’s precipitation falls in the northern part of the state while two-thirds of California’s population lives in the southern part. Water has to be pumped long distances across the state and that uses a significant amount of energy. The California Water Project accounts for 19% of the state’s electricity use, making it the biggest single energy user in the state. This system is already strained as the population continues to grow and seasons have gotten drier. Other hot topics in California’s water scene are how water pollution and and climate change affect this already taxed system.

While all of this makes water use a pressing issue for California, it doesn’t matter where you live in the U.S. or what source you get your tap water from, it still takes electricity to get that water to you. Your water has to be cleaned, pumped to the tap, and treated after it goes down the drain. There is a hidden carbon footprint embedded in your water footprint. Just how big it is depends on where you get your water from, how it is processed before and after you use it, and how much alternative energy your water utility uses.

There are a lot of things driving my motivation to reduce my shower time. I love the beautiful Merced River that flows through Yosemite Valley and past my house. I know that water is scarce in California and that I’m lucky to have such a clean source of drinking water. I know that by reducing my water footprint I am also reducing my carbon footprint. I know that I will save money on utilities if I start taking shorter showers.

Water Footprint 1

If you want to reduce your water use but don’t know how, a great place to start is by using a water footprint calculator. Even though I consider myself to be fairly educated about water issues there were still some surprises in store for me as I started plugging my information into various water footprint calculators.

I already knew that the water I use in my house (for showering, cooking, brushing my teeth, etc.) is only a portion of my total water footprint. The rest of the water is hidden water: water that is used to produce the food I eat, the fuel that I use, and the stuff that I buy. What I didn’t realize is that hidden water accounts for a huge portion of my total water footprint, roughly 95%.

Each of the water footprint calculators I used measures water using slightly different methods so there was some variation in the results.

National Geographic Water Footprint Calculator: 1,313 gallons/day
Grace Water Footprint Calculator: 813 gallons/day
Kemira Water Footprint Calculator: 1836 gallons/day

I averaged these results to figure that I use about 1,193.5 gallons/day.

I was surprised that even when I factor in my ridiculously protracted showers I still use slightly less water than the average american. Again there is some variation in the statistics I found (here, here, and here), but when I averaged them together I got about 1981.3 gallons of water a day.

The Kemira calculator allows you to compare results to averages of other countries. Not surprisingly the U.S. uses the most per person (1797 gallons/ person/ day). Yemen uses the least (448 gallons/ person/ day). This means my average daily water use can be compared roughly to someone living in Belize (1191 gallons/ person/ day).

Picture 2

The National Geographic calculator breaks down your results based on household use, diet, energy, and stuff. I was surprised that diet was by far my biggest user of water, using almost twice water as much as the next category. I am still committed to shortening my showers this month, but for the future I know could have an even bigger impact on my water use if I make changes in my diet.

Each of the water footprint calculators I used have links to more information about water footprints and how to reduce yours.

It is next to impossible to find an unbiased sources about water issues in California. These are the articles I found to be the most helpful:

The Economist: Of Farms, Fish, and Folk
California Energy Commission: California’s Water – Energy Relationship
California Energy Comission: Water Related Energy Use in California
New York Times: A New Plan to Fix California Water System

Stay hydrated California!


P.S. The California Waterways Map in the top image is from the California Department of Water Resources.


5 Responses to “Earth Day: Water Footprints”

  1. aprilinautumn April 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    My average was really close to yours. 1,008 (I save by not eating most meat!), but I found the calculators frustrating. The Kemira calculator in particular. It only lets you choose either 3 days a week or 7 days a week for showers (no in between that?) and either no washing dishes by hand or at least once a day. I like that you averaged it out because I feel like of the two I did, Kemira overestimated and Nat’l Geographic probably underestimated. Very useful stuff.


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