One pound of beef … six months of showers: Saving California’s Water

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On January 17th, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown stood in front of TV cameras, reporters and officials and declared what had been all but official for some weeks: California’s drought has reached emergency proportions. The declaration – an official statement that sets up conditions for federal relief – brought a request that Californians voluntarily reduce their water usage by 20%. 

Then came the flurry of suggestions for how you and I can reduce our water use. Turn the water off after we wet our toothbrushes; water our lawns earlier or later in the day to avoid loss by evaporation; stop those drips at the spigot; take shorter showers; flush less often. All quite obvious and quite visible sources of waste … all predictable …  and all a ‘drop in the bucket.’  
One quick look at a few of the numbers makes it clear. An average family of four uses between 70,000 and 130,000  gallons per year in and around its home in these more visible ways. If every member of that one takes shorter showers, reduces lawn sprinkling, shuts the spigots when toothbrushing, and is able to achieve that 20% reduction, that family will have reduced water usage by 14,000 to 26,000 gallons.
That same average family of four consumes 200 pounds of beef per year – 50 pounds per person.  Every pound of beef takes 2500 gallons of water to produce.  That’s a total of 500,000 gallons of water hiding on the family’s kitchen table.  Consider that an average 5-minute shower with a low-flow shower head uses 12.5 gallons of water.   Every pound of beef is equivalent in water usage to 200  5-minute showers.  If every member of that family eats one pound less beef, each has saved the equivalent of more than 6 months of showers!
And that’s just beef!  Every year, the average American consumes 200 pounds of meat in all forms. Add to that dairy products: one gallon of milk requires 2000 gallons of water. You can quickly see where this goes … and what we need to do.  If we want to make a meaningful dent in this water emergency, we need to change our diets.  Eat fewer animal products and more plant-based foods.  Water is conserved at the fork.
Understand, I am not suggesting that adjusting our visible water use habits is a bad idea. Waste is never wise.   But if our governor and leaders were more serious about this emergency and more willing to take on the meat and dairy industries, their message would be very different: “Change what you are eating.”
Even if they won’t, we can!

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