What's Your Water Footprint?

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While gazing at one of Seattle's beautiful bodies of water this holiday weekend, it might be worth considering for a moment just how much water circulates annually through various systems on your behalf. We've posted before about the concept of embedded water in the things we use. A calculator from Waterfootprint.org makes it easy to estimate our own water footprints: how much of the precious resource passes through each of our bodies, trickles down our drains, gets soaked up by our lawns, or feeds the other multitudes of industries that support us.

Waterfootprint's team of expert researchers sums up their criteria for evaluation:

The water footprint of a nation shows the total volume of water that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the inhabitants of the nation. Since not all goods consumed in one particular country are produced in that country, the water footprint consists of two parts: use of domestic water resources and use of water outside the borders of the country. The water footprint includes both the water withdrawn from surface and groundwater and the use of soil water (in agricultural production).

Waterfootprint's reports caused some jaws to drop at Alternet:

The numbers are staggering. In the United States, our water footprint is 660,430 U.S. gallons per person per year. Compare that to 700 cubic meters per year per capita (184,920 gallons) in China and 1150 cubic meters per year per capita (303,798 gallons) in Japan. It takes about 1,916 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.

I put myself to the test to find out where I fall on that spectrum. According to Waterfootprint's extended individual calculator, my water consumption measures up to 1,317 cubic meters per year (that's about 347,915 gallons, or almost 1/19,000 of Lake Union). My water-guzzling rate is about one-half the U.S. national average, and I can probably chalk the relative low-ness of the number up to a few bigger factors like my meatless diet, my lack of a lawn, and my (relatively) meager spending power. I will admit I fudged some numbers (I really don't know how many pounds of cereal grains or exactly how much cheese I eat per week, though I imagine it's more than I'd like to tell you), but just plugging through the list of questions gave me a lot of food for thought.

I consider myself to be pretty conscious of water usage, but this survey underlines the important understanding that the times when we're directly in contact with the water we use – when drinking, cooking, brushing our teeth or even showering – are probably some of the smallest contributors to our overall water consumption. There is a wide, wet network of water resources supporting our lives, and putting numbers on it reminds me just how interconnected I am to the other people and other species around the world who all drink from that same collective—and limited—pool. I applaud Waterfootprint for making that element of life on earth more visible.