Evaluating our Water Footprint and Ways to Reduce

By Lauren Smith
St. Mary’s College of Maryland ’20

We often think of reducing our water usage by doing things like taking shorter showers or turning off the sink while we brush our teeth. This is one way we consume water, called direct water use. However, we often overlook the other type of water consumption that can play an even bigger role in our water footprint: indirect water use. Indirect water use includes water used to produce the goods and services we consume daily. This includes the water used to manufacture our cells phones, harvest the cotton that is later used to make our clothing, and produce our food.

Our water footprint, measured in gallons of water, tells us how much water we consume through these indirect processes. In the United States, 80% of our water consumption comes from agricultural processes, making it the largest source of indirect water use in our lives. To put this into perspective, the average American has a water footprint of 2,050 gallons per day. While this number may sound unwieldy, there are small changes we can make to our food habits to reduce our water footprints.

Waste Less Food

It is estimated that, on average, people in the U.S. waste about 40% of their food annually. This creates a large and problematic water footprint because the water that was used to produce these foods is literally being thrown away. However, there are easy ways to reduce the amount of food we waste, such as composting food scraps. Planning meals in advance allows you to know what food you need before you shop for it, which reduces the urge to buy unnecessary foods. Mostly importantly, eat your leftovers!

Cut Down on Processed Foods

Did you know a one pound bag of potato chips requires 125 gallons of water to produce? Processing foods require a large amount of water, from pre-cooking food to cleaning machinery to packaging. Whole foods like fruits and vegetables come far less water. You can even produce your own “processed” foods by making your own trail mix using nuts and dried fruits or making salad dressings and dips at home.

Scale Back on Meat Consumption

Red meat has one of the highest water food prints, with almost 680 gallons of water used to produce 6 ounces of steak. The high footprint for industrially-produced animal products comes from the water needed to grow food for the animals and sustain them until they are used to produce meat. Look for pasture-raised meat instead of industrially produced meat because much more water is used to make corn or soy feed than to have the animals graze grass. If you aren’t ready to cut meat out of your diet, start small with “Meatless Mondays” or opt for chicken instead (chicken has a lower water footprint).

Buy Sustainably

One easy way to reduce your water footprint is to support your local, sustainable farmers. Environmentally-friendly farming practices help farms use water more effectively by retaining moisture in soil, reducing runoff and erosion, and increasing water filtration.

To learn more, you can look at the water footprint of common foods here or calculate your individual water footprint here.