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How to Take Long Showers and Still Save the World From Drought

03/16/2015 06:56 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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Worried about California's water crisis? NASA research says the state only has a one year supply left in its reservoirs and some people are sweating.

I was at a gym in Los Angeles and left the water running while shaving in the locker room. Somebody walked up to me and asked, in the most condescending tone possible, "How much water do you think you're wasting?"

His heart was in the right place. His math wasn't.

If you eat just six fewer 4-oz burgers per year it'll save as much water as not showering. The. Whole. Year.

Federal standards cap sink faucets at 2.2 gallons per minute and shower heads at 2.5 gpm (with high efficiency standards at 1.5 gpm or less). These don't seem like our real problem. Cows, on the other hand, are thirsty. It can take over 1,200 gallons to produce a single 8-oz steak, the same amount of water as a 10-hour shower.

You don't have to skip flushes and flick off the faucet while brushing your teeth. It's great if you do those things, but not if you become drop wise and bucket foolish. A few smarter choices can make you a water conservationist even if you shower an hour each day. (But don't shower an hour each day ... that'd just be weird.)

Pay attention even if you don't live in California. A lot of things you buy (especially those you eat) are made here with our dwindling water supply. Most of these tricks have been tested in my own home so I can assure you it's easy. Water use estimates can vary, so click the links for more information.

1. EAT LESS MEAT
I'm not advocating vegetarianism, just cut back once in awhile. Estimates range from 1,800 to 8,400 gallons of water needed to produce a single pound of beef. The cows aren't just drinking it, they eat a lot of feed -- which takes yet more water to grow. It's the thirstiest menu choice you can make, using over 10 times the amount of water as an equivalent amount of chicken. California's livestock industry uses a staggering 188 million of gallons of water per day, and we use 2 billion nationally (these numbers include other farm animals, but cows take a disproportionate share). Americans average three hamburgers per week, so you still might be able to eat at In-N-Out twice before Friday and be cutting back. If you switch to a turkey burger, that's reducing at least 75% of the water used for an equivalent amount of beef. Pork products use up to 50% more water than poultry, but again nowhere near as much as beef. If you haven't tried veggie burgers, some are actually pretty good (especially when they're not trying to be the real thing) and all use a tiny fraction of the water that meat does. Participate in Meatless Monday and suddenly you're a water-saving rockstar. And don't think that you'll only help California if the cattle was raised here. The state uses an estimated 100 billion gallons of water per year to grow feed that gets shipped to cows as far away as China, Korea and the United Arab Emirates. It's a vicious and inefficient cycle, no matter how tasty.

2. READ THE LABEL BEFORE YOU BUY JEANS
The dying process for a single pair of jeans can take nearly 3,000 gallons of water, enough to fill up jacuzzis for you and 40 of your closest friends. Also surprising, 75% of designer jeans sold worldwide are still manufactured in drought-stricken California. It's those expensive ones that are probably going to take the most water to "wash" the denim into that must-have look, as opposed to ones made cheaply overseas (hopefully somewhere with plenty of water, anyway). It's still ideal to buy made-in-the-USA, so look for labels mentioning a recycled- or low-water process. As for that urban legend about saving water with jeans: Don't put them in your freezer instead of washing them. This idea went viral (errr, bacterial?) after the CEO of Levi's suggested it could save water and keep them in good condition. The company later ditched the concept and microbiologists don't recommend it.

3. STOP WASTING FOOD
It takes water to produce food and that's OK. But that means wasting food is also wasting water. Four ounces of cheese can use up 150 gallons. A single egg needs 50 gallons, which you may recall is roughly a 25-minute shower. Four ounces of rice can fall somewhere in between. A pound of chicken uses about 600 gallons and, as you've learned, beef can be 10 times that. Again, this doesn't just apply to residents in a drought region. If you live anywhere in the United States, odds are very good that your next meal will have water-guzzling ingredients from California. It's common sense: Use your leftovers and don't buy the Costco size if half of it will end up in the trash. (Figures converted from metric equivalents on the Pacific Institute's worldwater.org.)

4. THINK TWICE ABOUT LEATHER
You know that eating cows uses a lot of water, so you probably guessed that wearing them isn't much better. A pound of leather takes almost 1,000 gallons to produce, even after factoring out the share of water for beef. This adds up quickly in shoes, jackets, purses, furniture and car seats. There are situations in life where it's tough to avoid leather. But there are often better synthetics for the job. And if you're a guy considering leather pants ... don't. I'm not even telling you that to save water (though it will), but to save our eyes.

5. GO PAPERLESS
A typical sheet of paper takes 2.6 gallons of water to produce. While recycling is a good start (saving 3.5 gallons per pound of paper), it's time to turn the tables and give our paper a cut. Digital newspaper subscriptions and books on e-readers will save water, trees and, generally, your wallet. Per Slate: "It takes about seven gallons to produce the average printed book, while e-publishing companies can create a digital book with less than two cups of water. (E-book publishers consume water, like any other company, through the paper they use and other office activities.) Researchers estimate that 79 gallons of water are needed to make an e-reader. So you come out on top, water-wise, after reading about a dozen books."

6. FIX LEAKS
Happy Fix a Leak Week. No, really. It's a thing. Running March 16-22 this year, the EPA promotes it for obvious reasons. Not so obvious is that they estimate the average household can lose 10,000 gallons a year on leaks. Your shower lasts just minutes, but your broken fixture never stops. Even 10 drips per minute can add up to 500 gallons annually. If your working fixtures predate federal regulations from 1994 (odds are low given you clearly own a computer or mobile device to read this), you should consider them leaky as a matter of principle. Adding an aerator to limit the flow may be cheaper than replacement. When replacing anything that uses water, look for a WaterSense label for even more savings.

7. PUT A COVER ON YOUR POOL
Few things scream "California" like owning a pool, though not everybody has one to cover. If you do, you may already know that the annual evaporation can equal ... the entire pool. I didn't find a definitive study, but the consensus from newspaper websites and cities seems to be that a typical pool can hold nearly 20,000 gallons and can lose up to that much to evaporation if left uncovered for a year. The cost of a cheap cover can be mostly offset by the cost of topping off. While rain can also counteract the problem, that's been a rare luxury in sunny California.

8. TELECOMMUTE WHEN YOU CAN
Sorry, boss, I didn't want to drive into work today because we're having a drought. A gallon of gas can take multiple gallons of water to produce. It's been a while since anybody reexamined the issue, but a 1994 study calculated it's 1 to 2.5 gallons "consumed" (not to be confused with the 12.5 gallons "withdrawn," meaning it was used for cooling but returned to the source). California refineries pump out roughly 80 million gallons of oil per day, more than 10% of the U.S. total. And when your tires wear out, it'll take over 2,000 gallons of water to make their replacements. A whole new car? That can take 39,000 gallons of water, mostly for steel production. Yes, your computer parts require water, too, but you'd probably be using one wherever you're physically working. Skype, Google Docs and other collaborative tools don't have the same impact. In fact, you've probably noticed your computer is averse to water. It's harder to measure what you conserve from commuting than some of the other suggestions here and it's probably less significant. Still, it adds up and there's a critical link between water and energy use overall.

DISHONORABLE MENTION: CHOCOLATE
A pound of chocolate takes over 3,000 gallons of water to produce. We already call it a guilty pleasure, but don't feel bad. It takes a while to eat a whole pound and a lot of it comes from regions with plenty of water. When have you ever tasted a California-grown cocoa bean, anyway? Of course, this story is about informed choices, so if you can live without it ... more for me.

You may have noticed I didn't included any lawn care information. That's really a subject of its own. According to the EPA, "The typical suburban lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water above and beyond rainwater each year." You can only cut back so much before you have a barren moonscape, and a responsible homeowner should already have some idea of what they're doing. Check out the EPA website for specific advice.

BONUS: THINGS YOU DON'T HAVE TO GIVE UP

While all water conservation is good, not all water conservation is equal. If you make a few smarter choices listed above, you really shouldn't feel guilty about the things listed below -- provided you don't over-indulge. Comparatively, these are just a drop in the bucket.

  1. DRINKING WATER: Most people should drink more water. Don't cut back and don't worry about all those glasses at a restaurant.
  2. SHOWERS: At 2 gallons per minute, wash up.
  3. COFFEE: It takes 37 gallons of water to make a cup, but if it was grown near a rainforest you probably shouldn't feel too concerned about the water supply. "If" is the operative word, so try to look for brands certified as sustainable.
  4. BEER: It's 68 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of beer. You don't drink that much in a sitting. I hope.
  5. WINE (maybe): Thanks to the grapes it can take 1,000 gallons of water to make a gallon of wine. A gallon of wine at dinner is a terrible idea, so you probably won't use quite that much water. But you could also switch to beer. If you're a snob, there are plenty of hoppy IPAs and malty porters to be your new muse.
  6. FRUIT: An apple and an orange take 18 and 13 gallons of water to produce, respectively. Juice takes a few times that amount of water per cup, but it's still relatively reasonable.
  7. CAR WASHES: Your range of options means an equally big range of water use, with estimates from 12 to 100 gallons per wash. Avoid "bays" where you park and wait in the car as a machine moves around you. Conveyor-belt and self-service washes tend to be more efficient.
  8. AVOCADOS: While a pound produced in California uses 74.1 gallons of water, 70% of the ones we eat are imported. Mexico uses just 31.9 gallons per pound, though Chile uses a whopping 96.8 gallons of water and also has drought concerns. In other words, keep enjoying them unless you're eating pounds per day. At that point, you really should share that guacamole, anyway.

World Water Day is coming up on Sunday, March 22. Help make a difference ... share this!

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