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Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency for the state of California. 2013 was the driest year in the state’s history – since records started being kept about 100 years ago. State water reservoirs are critically low and farmers, lawmakers, and environmentalists’ growing concerns have gone from a slow drip to a raging storm. Activists and farmers recently joined forces and came in droves from the Central Valley to rally on the capitol steps in Sacramento, demanding action as water levels drop and anxiety levels rise.

California residents have been asked to be vigilant and cut back on household water use, but only about 4 percent of California’s water footprint is individual, personal use. A stunning 80 percent goes to agriculture, according to a recent report from the NRDC and Pacific Institute, so if we really want to talk about drastic conservation, perhaps we should look at our food choices.

Who’s Really Using all the Water?

Of the foods produced in the Golden State, the thirstiest by far are those that are derived from animals. Household impact is a trickle compared to the flood of water needed to produce meat, dairy, and eggs, especially when compared to plant foods. For example, a study at Cornell University found that producing one pound of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein. Another study adds to the overflow of evidence finding that the amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is almost 1,600 gallons, compared to just 102 gallons for a pound of wheat.

Humans drink less than one gallon of water per day, but a cow can drink up to 23 gallons of water a day, according to a North Dakota State University study. That’s a huge amount of water to keep millions of animals alive.

Hidden Water Wasted in Livestock Production

Not only does it take vast amounts of water to hydrate the animals, millions of additional gallons of fresh water go to irrigate the feed for livestock, to wash excrement off the concrete floors, to clean the blood and grease from the equipment in the butchering process, and further uses that are not necessary in plant food production. For example, a dairy operation that utilizes an automatic flushing system can use up to 150 gallons of water per cow, per day, the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services reports.

The crops we have chosen to quickly fatten up our farm animals are wasting water as well. Corn and soybeans, which represent the vast majority of livestock’s diet, are comparably cheap as a result of government subsidies. However, these crops are also exogenous; they have a deeper thirst for water than endogenous crops, which are dormant in the warm summer months when there is a high demand for water. Exogenous crops like corn and soy require more water and are therefore yet another drain on an already wasteful system of processing animal products, as a study published in Water Policy reveals.

Most people shower every day an average of about seven minutes of hot water with the showerhead flowing out about two gallons of water a minute. The Water Education Foundation calculates that every pound of California beef requires about 2,464 gallons of water to produce. You would save more water just by replacing a pound of beef with plant foods than you would by not showering for six months!

People are looking to grass-fed beef as a possible eco-alternative to commercial operations, but the grass is no greener for grass-fed animals. In fact, pasture raised animals require more water than their factory farmed cousins, because they have a higher activity level and spend more time in the sun, especially during the summer months. Grass-fed beef can also produce 50 to 60 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than their grain-eating counterparts, sometimes producing as much as four times more methane emissions than feedlot cattle, reports Science News.

Ending Water Waste Starts With You

California families are concerned and ready to take action. Responsible citizens will be taking shorter showers, shutting off the water while brushing their teeth, and only washing clothes with a full load. But what most people don’t know is the much greater impact of their diet.

Each of us has an opportunity to take action that could cut our water waste far more than any household use by reducing or eliminating animal products from our diet. It takes less water to produce one year’s worth of food for a completely plant-based diet than it does to produce one month’s worth of food for a diet with animal products.

As Californians, we know it’s healthy to eat more veggieswhole grainsbeans, and fruits. We also know that animals are suffering — living miserable, short lives in filthy, confined conditions, being cruelly treated, and brutally slaughtered. Now, we have a statewide crisis and could run out of one of life’s absolute necessities: fresh, clean water.

It may be more abstract than just turning off the tap, but the foods we choose impact our water supply. Eating more veggies, fruits and grains, and reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat, milk, and eggs will help your family decrease their environmental footprint, get healthy, help animals, and preserve enough fresh water for generations of Californians to come.

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41 comments on “California’s Drought — Who’s Really Using all the Water?”

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1 Days ago

When we are done wringing our hands about the temporary drought conditions here in California, maybe we can get back to our real mission in life, Freeing Tibet !

John Mak
9 Days ago

Contradictory quotes from the article:

"evidence finding that the amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is almost 1,600 gallons"
"every pound of California beef requires about 2,464 gallons of water to produce"...

not for or against this pro-vegan diet article, but I am definitely in favor of water conservation.

14 Days ago


1 Months Ago

over simplified article. Certain animals can eat cellulose based plants that humans cannot, converting it to useable protein. Carrots cant eat it either, so unless someone can dramatically increase farm food production to replace all the protein converted by animals the planet will starve.

21 Sep 2014

Farm food production would not dramatically increase. In fact, much of it would no longer be necessary. Most soy corn grown in the U.S., particularly of the GMO variety, is fed to farmed animals, not to humans.

1 Months Ago

You forgot the BIGGEST issue the Delta Smelt - 300 billion gallons of water for a smelt that every says will still not survive......

O Luon
1 Months Ago

ice bucket challenge

28 Aug 2014

Animal tests are a waste of money. So fuck the ice bucket challenge!

1 Months Ago

Go Vegan and save animals and whole planet...!

Dr. M. Shanks
1 Months Ago

Vegan propaganda... In fact, the greatest wasters of California water are unlined and uncovered irrigation canals and ditches, and the growing of highly irrigated crops wholly unsuitable for low moisture areas of the state.

Share the Awareness
27 Aug 2014

Hmmm, wonder if any of those crops you mention are going to the over 5 million cows unnaturally bred into existence in CA.

27 Aug 2014

Meat industry misdirection (propaganda). "The meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lactoovovegetarian diet." (source - http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full)

28 Aug 2014

Smelled that vegan propaganda a mile away

Marc Cesario
1 Months Ago

This article does not take into the nuances involved in agriculture. Cows can perform a very useful function in converting solar energy through grazing in turning a non edible source, grass, into a high quality form of food. Well-managed pasture can sequester and incredible amount of carbon and for every 1% increase in organic matter, carbon, pasture can hold 1 more liter of water in the soil. Tilled soils will never be able to have as high O.M. % as a well managed pasture. Yes there are many areas and environments that cows should not be but there are also many areas that they SHOULD be. Yes this article is about California for Californians but here on our farm in VT on highly erodible, clay sloped soils our farm wants, NEEDS, to be in pasture and have ruminants grazing it. A recent energy audit by a UVM physics on VT farms showed that perennial pasture based ruminant agriculture in this area consistently had some of the lowest overall energy consumption of all farms! Yes this article is about water, and should we eat less meat, definitely, should cows be everywhere, no. All I\'m saying it is that this issue is not so black and white as the article would like us to believe it to be.

marc cesario
27 Aug 2014

Just to clarify that stat, since I didn\'t give any area, expanded it would be;
for 1 sq. meter of soil, every 1 % increase in O.M. would increase water holding capacity by 16.8L.

Marcy casey
27 Aug 2014

In NORTHERN California we have the six rivers national forest, SIX rivers, and then some, most of which are wild, some have been damned up. Southern and Central California take a large amounts of OUR water for agriculture and now our rivers and lakes are hot, drying up, and killing fish again. Why do they build there with no water, they think they can just divert all of our water to them for their businesses and to hell with us up here who can\'t even water our lawns or wash our cars and we do this voluntarily because we know there is a shortage. why bitch about it , deal with it and leave our water alone!

Richard Schall
29 Aug 2014

Those cows give off a lot of methane, adding to global warming, thus contributing to the drought.

1 Months Ago

oh yeah do some dishes and wash your car while you\'re at it


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