Water generates most of our electricity but what are we doing to protect water?
It’s been called the source of the next great global conflict. More than oil or food, scarcity of water has been predicted to cause intense the most intense battles between nations.
We tend to think of water consumption in terms of the water we use at home for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. According to the EPA, an average family of four uses about 400 gallons per day at home. Taking a shower? Two gallons per minute. Flushing a toilet uses 1.6 gallons per minute, although old toilets use up to four. Running the dishwasher? That uses between four and ten gallons per load (depending on the model of washer), which sounds like a lot until you realize that washing them by hand can drain up to twenty gallons per sink of dishes.
The conservation-minded meticulously turn off faucets while brushing teeth and install efficient appliances. We even admonish the kids that “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” all in the name of preserving water. We install low-flow toilets and snivel at desert cities that use their water for irrigating golf courses and plush lawns. We do everything we can to not waste it.
But while Americans use more water for residential purposes than citizens of any other country, those 400 gallons don’t even tell the whole story. In order to sustain the average American lifestyle, it takes about 2,000 gallons of water per person, each and every day.
We never see the majority of that water. As a nation, our biggest water drain is the generation of electricity. About 42 percent of all the water used in the country goes toward producing thermoelectric power, creating steam and cooling generators. That’s the electricity that powers not only our houses, but also manufacturing and agriculture – even the power needed to pump water from its sources, which invariably grow farther and farther away as sprawl grows and water supplies shrink.
Irrigation eats up another 37 percent of our fresh water, and explains why California, Texas, and Florida – states with huge agricultural industries – are among the top water-consuming states in the country. Then there’s the industrial uses: factories, malls, schools, hospitals, and anywhere else that people make stuff, sell stuff, or buy stuff. After counting crops, livestock, mining, public needs and commercial use, less than 9 percent of the water consumed in the United States ever ends up in a house or in a glass.
At least 36 states are expected to face water shortages by the year 2013. Conservation efforts on the individual scale are welcome and important – in many cities, the overall rate of water consumption has stayed the same even as population has risen – but the only real way to conserve on a large scale is to address the water that facilitates our power and our food. It’s easy to look at fountains and golf courses in the desert and blame that waste and profligacy for our dwindling supplies of water, but the root problem is also our collective over-reliance on air conditioning, our lack of investment in public transportation, and our industrial food system.
Most municipal water systems keep prices as low as possible. In fact, in many places, they’re prohibited by law from turning a profit, and while that’s good for consumers’ budgets, it often camouflages the true cost of the retrieval, treatment, and transport of residential water. And the cost of items we purchase doesn’t reflect the true cost of what it took to produce the item – from the electricity for manufacturing to the fossil fuels for transport to the water used to support livestock.
The two best ways to save water are to use less electricity and to eat less non-local food, especially beef. Even a single commercial hamburger takes more than 600 gallons of water to produce. As growing cities and suburbs start fighting for ever-more-scarce sources of water, the way toward sustainability isn’t just by watering lawns at night – it’s by addressing everything we consume, from electricity to food to fast fashion to imported electronics. And ultimately, consuming less of it all.
Photos: Dottie Mae, danperry.com, Steve Johnson