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Last week, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state of California as 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 93 percent goes to agriculture, according to a 2012 Pacific Institute report, so if we really want to talk about drastic conservation, perhaps we should look at our food choices.

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.

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.

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 veggies, whole grains, beans, 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.

Image Source: Sander Hoogendoorn/Flickr

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

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Sheranne Cane
4 Hours ago

Good point. I think it is only now that we\'re starting to realize the importance of water. We normally don\'t mind about conserving water consumption before until this drought came. In other parts of the world, where drought is normal, they know all about this water conservation thing. At least now, we feel what other people (in other parts of the world) felt.


Reply
OhMeOhMy
1 Days ago

time to stop eating mcdonalds, burger king and carls junior!


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ScottD
3 Days ago

Am I the only one who clicked through and read the sources? Because if you do, you will see that the 93% figure is complete BS in terms of California water use. That figure is "water-footprint" which includes products produces outside of California that require water but are finally consumed here. Thus, if a cow drinks water in Kansas and eventually is eaten as a steak in San Francisco, then the water counts in that figure. I am so tired of people skewing facts to try and advocate a point. If you hate that people eat beef and beef is hard on the environment, then make that point. But you wrote this as a hit piece related to California drought. Very poor journalism indeed. Very poor.


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Ali
19 Aug 2014

Great point! Checking the sources is always important when reading any articles. Especially nowadays when so many journalists skew the facts to prove their point.

abel
22 Aug 2014

That introduces error go both ways, though - if a cow drinks water in California and eventually is eaten in Kansas, that water consumption happens in California, but won\'t be considered if we just look at what people eat in California.

zoe a whitman
18 Days ago

I wonder how much California tap water Coca-cola and Pepsi use making their \'purified\' water products- Dajani - Propel- Aquafina-Qua ? Of course you can buy it back, but at what cost?


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Brenda Delacruz
1 Months Ago

And, I just want to add that all of us have a vested interest in seeing that our food supply is SECURE...


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Brenda Delacruz
1 Months Ago

Why can we not pipe water wherever we need it? Lots of places have too much. Also continue to work on "saline filter\' for oceanic water, that reports say is increasing because of climate change. I believe the influx of water from other areas would turn around the weather conditions. At this point, the conditions are feeding off one another.


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Stefhan Gordon
1 Months Ago

One almond takes a gallon of water to grow. One walnut almost five gallons. 99% of all almonds and walnuts grown in the US are grown in California. One head of brocolli takes over five gallons of water. One pistachio takes 3/4 of a gallon of water . Over 95% of all brocolli and pistachios grown in the US are grown in California. Eating plants that aren\'t as water intensive, and less lucrative, is a large part of the solution.


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Stefhan Gordon
17 Jul 2014

plus lay off the almond milk

John
1 Months Ago

Eat more beef. Problem solved.


Reply
Charlee Helms
1 Months Ago

Strange, they didn\'t get into any industrial usages, which are often far larger. There are oil fields in Southern California that use fracking technology. EACH of those wells requires 1 million, yes million, gallons of POTABLE water per frac. never mind the other potential dangers. Other industries are nearly as bad. Then there are all the swimming pools being kept full, residential landscaping, etc.

Given today\'s social climate with the Animal Rights people, I can\'t help but wonder if targeting this one industry as the cauee of drought isn\'t serving a different agenda.


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Kris Hughes
5 Months Ago

The biggest issue here is that we are trying to feed and water more humans than the earth should be required to sustain. I agree that we shouldn't turn whole counties into vast cattle feedlots. But neither should we turn them into intensive vegetable farms or grain fields. We need to reduce population growth to zero, and in fact well below zero is desirable. Anything else we do - changing our diets and how often we shower, etc. is just messing around at the edges of the problem. While we learn to stop having kids like we're a bunch of rabbits, we can also learn to be less wasteful while we're at it.


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Ellen Skagerberg
25 Feb 2014

Kris, I'm all in favor of population reduction. We're like a cruise ship with limited capacity and resources that still keeps admitting new passengers, and it's going to sink us. However, it isn't as simple as "stop having kids." In many countries, one's offspring ARE their "social security." We have to bring the entire world into old-age security before we're going to successfully sell the idea of zero population growth. Not only that, but corporations would need to be overhauled to reduce their reliance on a growing customer base and continual corporate expansion. There's no peace without justice, and no worldwide population control until incentives for not reproducing are established and trusted.

John
16 Jul 2014

Population reduction. Hmmm. Who should we start with?



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