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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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Kris Hughes
1 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.

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.

El Corno
2 Months Ago

Dear Hope, thanks for taking the time to alert us to the issue. I respect your choice of forgoing meat in your diet, but this article is deeply flawed in that it suggests that the beef industry is to blame for rampant water use in California. Let's take a look at the facts (which you can find here http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/): in 2013, there were 5.3 million head of cattle in California. Dairy is the leading agricultural product of California and only one in five cows in the state is part of the beef industry. What that already tells us is that an article with such a headline should actually take a stab at milk drinkers, cheese aficionados, butter users, yogurt fans and others who enjoy dairy products - not people that enjoy a steak or some bbq'ed ribs. Now look at the the major irrigation projects in California, the most prominent of which is of course the Central Valley Project. The CVP alone turned California into the agricultural powerhouse that it is today, producing 8 percent of the USA's agricultural output by value. Today, Central Valley agriculture is the leading source of tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, apricots, and asparagus in the US (note: none of these are usually fed in beef or dairy production). At the same time the CVP was - and is - highly controversial due to its environmental and economic impacts, it also represents a massive federal subsidy to a small number of large landowners (among the oil and insurance companies) that split up the most productive parts of the valley long ago. In most parts of the world gravity determines where water flows, in the American West money and power determine where water flows. So, if you are in opposition to the the system of industrialized agriculture, completely unhinged irrigation economics, and other such things I'm right there with you - but please don't use up your credibility by spreading biased information that is mostly unsupported by evidence.

Ellen Skagerberg
30 Jan 2014

Thanks for your research, El Corno. Even though I find the specifics of the research conclusions suspect, I still believe the post has merit, and that Hope's approach is more likely to truly conserve water than suggestions like "turn off the water when you brush your teeth" -- all those stupid tips to save 1 cup of water, which most of us have been doing since time immemorial. (Who runs half-empty dishwashers any more, honestly?) Sure, you can always convert a few clueless new adults, but I've been looking for "big picture" water conservation, and this post certainly provides this, even if the details are fuzzy. So I didn't delete the article from my Facebook page, because I haven't seen anything better, but I acknowledge that some of the conclusions need work. ~~ Ellen

Hope Bohanec
30 Jan 2014

El Corno, Your response is “deeply flawed”. Let me explain. I do not state that beef is the biggest concern and do include dairy as a large part of the problem, referring to dairies with automated flushing systems etc. There was one statistic related to beef, however I state that we should be reducing or eliminating “meat, milk and eggs” and “animal products”, dairy being included in both. If you ate hamburger or taco meat this week, you likely ate a dairy cow. Dairy cows aren’t offered a retirement plan and when their milk production wanes, in the human equivalent of their 20’s, they are slaughtered for ground beef and other low quality meats. The millions of males that are born to the dairy industry are useless and are killed for veal or beef. All this slaughter wastes millions of gallons of water and the dairy industry profits off the sale of the meat, so yes, meat is still a huge water waste in California. As far as “spreading biased information that is mostly unsupported by evidence”, I invite you to go to the nine peer reviewed studies that I sited in the article. These studies add to the flood of evidence that states simply–and I will try to be a clear as I can this time–animal agriculture, of any kind, wastes far more water than growing plants. Therefore, it will be helpful to reduce or eliminate all animal products.

A Farmer's Musings...
2 Months Ago

On average, California has access to 200 million acre feet of fresh water annually and it only develops about 82 million acre feet for storage and conveyance to urban, industrial, environmental, and agricultural needs. http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/watersupply.cfm It also shouldn't be overlooked that farmers turn water into food that is then shipped back to urban centers for consumption. Attributing that "water use" is not as black-and-white as suggested. People who aren't farmers need to buy their food from people who farm. Also, late last year, inflexible environmental policy forced 800,000 AF of fresh water into the ocean with no appreciable benefit to the fish it intended to help. It did so in the face of the drought we now find ourselves in. "That is enough water to produce crops on 200,000 acres or 10 million tons of tomatoes; 200 million boxes of lettuce; 20 million tons of grapes." Those are the types of vegetable encouraged in this article? It was reckless policy and now haunts the entire state. http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action http://westernfarmpress.com/blog/californians-lose-800000-acre-feet-water-305-minnows

2 Months Ago

Hey all. My step dad (padre segundo!) is vegan while I follow something you might loosely define as "Paleo"(sound the alarm! Paleo-Troll!!!), not because that was a goal of mine, but through ongoing trial and error with health issues and food intolerances. He and I obviously get into a debate about this sometimes and he forwarded this to me. Not trying to be a troll or be negative or anything. Just thought I'd share the thoughts I wrote back to him here for a bit of friendly but spirited debate! Disclaimer: I realize that as a random commenter I have the luxury, as we all do, of making claims without citation, so even if you agreed with me I would say, take it with a grain of salt. Cheers! Without further ado: Comparing a pound of wheat to a pound of beef is a little disingenuous! Really!? 1lb wheat supposedly stacks up to 1lb of beef!?! They should reference water usage relative to the nutrient density/quality of the food. 1lb of wheat is a nutritional vacuum, while 1lb of even conventional beef is a nutritional powerhouse by comparison worth 10 times what the wheat is worth. I'm all for the veggies, in large amounts even. But grains and beans are worthless! Their supposed water efficiency is crap because they are an empty food with almost no nutritional value. The way I see it the water used for wheat was the most wasteful because it was used to make wheat! It is meaningless filler; empty calories. It has nothing beneficial you can't get in greater amounts from dozens of other sources, while it may in fact harm many or most of us. That water was wasted! The beef on the other hand provides real whole nutritional value. I do want to find ways to make the water usage more efficient if possible. I realize those volumes cannot be sustained. Here's another question: I know some water is used in seafood processing, but how much? A lot of times they use seawater. So if we eat fish that is sustainably harvested, what's the impact on our freshwater compared to vegetable foods? I have no idea and I am genuinely curious about that. And again, fish is incredibly nutrient dense so 1lb of dover sole is worth waaay more than 1lb of wheat or squash, or even corn, beans & squash together for that matter. They just don't stack up no matter how much we wish it were true. We also can't look at water usage in a vacuum, either. Water usage is one part of what we need to manage as a society, but we also have to manage the health of our population. Since the popularization of the concept that a low fat, whole grain, low to no animal food diet is healthy, the epidemic of metabolic disease has gotten dramatically worse, not better, and there is plenty evidence stacking up against these recommendations. I'm not suggesting that a whole foods, mainly vegetable based approach to diet is unhealthy. I think it will work well for many. Not so much for others. The key here is the avoidance of processed foods, with a lot of refined starches, refined sugars and processed vegetable oils. These are the real killers and if a single drop of water went to their production then it's water we've wasted. Many grains and legumes are likely also a problem for many if not most people. The rest is a matter of individual physiology. I truly envy those who can live well on a plant based or largely plant based diet. They certainly can claim to have a better ecological footprint than I do, based on diet alone. I'm not willing to poison myself in order to be more green, though. That's where I draw the line. -Adam

Travis Rust
29 Jan 2014

Adam, You immediately discredit yourself when you say that beans are nutritionally worthless. According to WHFoods.com, most types of beans qualified as "a good source of manganese, protein, magnesium, thiamin (vitamin B1), phosphorus and iron. In the case of protein, for example, a one cup serving of cooked black beans provided about one third of a day's protein requirement."

Anna Westlund
2 Months Ago

I'm sorry. I like beef

Lisa King Arnold
2 Months Ago

Nice article. There are so many great reasons to embrace a whole food, plant based diet!!

Gottfried Musicus
2 Months Ago

Interesting to see those numbers. Information seems good and valid. However, there is either some very important info missing, or painfully omitted: The Governor supports Fracking in CA, and nobody really knows the amount of water being wasted in this process. BAN FRACKING immediately! Furthermore, industrial sized animal production is currently not feasible for immediate avoidance, -after all, peoples lives are closely tied in their earnings process to it, -- yet should be considered for relocation to areas less prone to drought.

Asoper Axiom
2 Months Ago


Iwona Heymann
2 Months Ago

United Nations is calling on humanity to stop their addiction to rot. It is not a personal choice but the issue of human survival as species. With 1 billion humans added every 13 years ongoing bloodbath cannot continue. If we choose to remain stupid we will be ejected from this planet via Extinction #6. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=tQlekfaPyaA.

Lynda Angel Hubeny
2 Months Ago

It's going to las Vegas.


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