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How do we save our water? It starts with our food.

January 14, 2022

Many states like CA and UT are asking residents to reduce water consumption at home. But the focus needs to shift to our "invisible" footprint: the food we produce and eat.

The western United States is facing historic drought conditions. More than 95% of the region is experiencing drought, and some experts believe we are currently in the grips of a “megadrought”—extreme, prolonged droughts that have occurred throughout history and can last for up to 40 years.

Although droughts are common in the arid West, climate change is contributing to more extreme heat and periods of dryness, amplifying effects like extreme temperatures and wildfires.

States have responded to the worsening crisis in many ways. California’s statewide water conservation plan, Save Our Water, advises residents to help conserve by filling their bathtubs only half way or turning off the sink while brushing teeth. Utah’s Slow The Flow campaign offers lawn signs to residents that read “Yellow Is The New Green” and “Water to Survive Not Thrive.”

Here’s the big problem with campaigns like this though. In the State of Utah, water used for residential landscaping uses only about 6% of the state’s total water, while indoor use (think showers, dishwashing, etc) uses a mere 4%. The vast majority of freshwater in the West is sucked-up by agriculture. In Utah, agriculture takes more than 80% of the state’s total fresh water. The numbers are about the same for California.

In the best case scenario, where Utah achieves its goal of reducing per-capita water use by 25%, statewide water use would be reduced by less than 3%.

Obviously, 3% isn’t going to cut it if we want to save our rapidly dwindling freshwater supplies.

The most important point here though isn’t that the bulk of fresh water resources is going to agriculture, it’s that most of it is going to just one industry in particular: animal agriculture. The biggest culprit? Alfalfa. Alfalfa accounts for nearly half of all agricultural water use in Utah. Alfalfa’s outsized water footprint is due in part to it being an incredibly thirsty crop, requiring up to 75% more water per-acre than spring grains like barley.

So why all the alfalfa anyway? Virtually all of it is exported out of the state to China and California (ironically) to feed greenhouse gas emitting dairy cows. In short, that block of Gruyere is a far bigger problem than your kitchen faucet.

The real salt in the wound for states like Utah is that although the state exports most of its water in the form of alfalfa, the crop accounts for less than 2% of the state’s total economic output.

On top of all of this, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, cattle grazing on western public lands is the leading cause of species endangerment and general environmental degradation. 

An individual’s water footprint is often measured by “visible” and “invisible” factors. The “visible” ones are the easiest to see and measure, which is why we constantly hear messages to take shorter showers and run full-loads of laundry as opposed to half-loads. Clearly, though, the focus needs to shift to the “invisible” part of the footprint—the part that includes the food we produce and eat.

Because of the extremely low water levels, farmers in Utah and California have only been able to use about a quarter of their typical water allotment. And more and more farmers across the region are adopting more water-saving irrigation methods, which are important and necessary steps. 

But real impacts aren't going to happen until we address the root of the problem, i.e. stop producing crops that shouldn’t be grown in the desert, like alfalfa. That’s going to require governments to acknowledge the role crops like alfalfa play in the water shortage crisis and to take substantive legislative actions that shifts towards more sustainable agricultural practices.

(A quick note here regarding almonds: yes, almonds also require a lot of water, but almond milk still only uses about half the amount that cow’s milk requires).

Solving the water crisis is also going to require consumers to start thinking about their food choices the way they think about watering their lawns. American’s have already signaled their growing preference for non-dairy milks as dairy milk sales continue to drop and 41% of U.S. households purchase plant-based milks.

It could be as simple as starting by swapping the milk in the morning bowl of cereal for oat or soy milk, or trading your beef patty for a Beyond burger. There are endless approaches to take, big and small. The most important part is that we do something.

So next time you're dining out in California and they don’t automatically fill your water glass unless you request it, make sure that whatever is on your plate didn’t require 7,000 glasses of water to produce it.

Chris Shapard is FFAC's Communications Coordinator.