Secret Life of Water

 

A water footprint, similar to a carbon footprint, is the quantity of water that something requires to be produced, processed, transported, and consumed. A person’s water footprint is the total amount of water required for their food, transportation, home, materials, and daily use. There are various ways of calculating a water footprint, including some online water footprint calculators, but to get a detailed understanding of my own water footprint, I undertook a study to examine the water required to live my life as I do today.

 

I began by getting a baseline from a standard calculator; according to https://www.watercalculator.org, my water footprint is 4326 liters (L) per day, that’s 1,142 gallons. This automatic calculation is made according to my lifestyle living in a home with three friends; I use a high efficiency washing machine, kitchen and bathroom with low flow fixtures, wear clothes, drive a car, and eat herb-omnivorously, an occasional meat-eater, but this week, I didn’t eat any meat. I include, here driving 1,270 miles a week, because during the week of tracking I drove 1,270 miles, about 1,000 miles more than normal. Thus I tracked my water footprint including a trip from Maine to New York, meticulously accounting for the ingredients in my meals, the materials I use on a daily basis, and the real water use I am responsible for on a daily basis.

 

Then I calculated the “real” water I used, or the water I used for cooking, cleaning, washing, and drinking everyday. I looked for the flow specs on all faucets in my house including the shower and kitchen – the liters per flush on the toilet, and for the water consumed by the washing machine. I timed or calculated my water use whenever turning on these faucets and appliances, recording each step. I attempted to use as much water as normal despite the my heightened-consciousness about calculating every last drop of my water use.

 

Next, to account for the virtual water footprints for the materials and services I used each day. Virtual water is the water “embedded” or used to produce, process, transport, or maintain something. I found that statistics on virtual water footprints for the staple foods in my diet vary widely. I used waterfootprint.org for most stats. Included in virtual water footprint for my staples are coffee at 128 liters of water per 8oz cup, olive oil at 409 L per tablespoon, chocolate at 1,954 L per 4 oz bar, and butter at 1,262 L per ½ cup. I prepared a spreadsheet where I could enter in the foods I ate everyday for a week and quantify my footprint accordingly. I standardized my measurements of water in L.

 

Example day of my system for measuring virtual water footprint for food in L:
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For hardgoods like my vehicle, the house I rent, the clothes I wear, and the paper I use, I found virtual water data in measures per unit, volume, or weight including my cell phone and computer, and I calculated my daily water footprint per item, W as: (Q) the weight, volume, or quantity of units that I own, multiplied by its unit water footprint (w), divided by the number of days of use (P) to present,  W=(Qw)/P. Because of the complexity of calculating the water footprint of the composite materials in the house in which I live, I excluded composite materials from the water footprint in my calculations, but included forest materials (lumber) at a standard number of 20.44 L per board foot multiplied for an 1,800 sq foot house with 6 sides, divided by 5 occupants over a 30 year lifespan gives 25 L/day person.

 

Chart representing the distribution of my hardgoods water footprint:

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I also calculated the water footprint of the energy I use such as gasoline I burned while driving my car, including a trip to New York City from Bar Harbor, 1,000 miles at nearly 40 miles per gallon. This calculation was made using waterfootprint.org’s figure of 9.46 L of water to refine one gallon of gasoline, but including 10% ethanol, which requires 10,830 L to produce 1 gallon, that figure changes to 9.46 + (10,803/10) = 1,089 L of water per gallon of gasoline. The total water footprint of my 1,000 mile trip is thus 30,513 L of water, thats about 30 L of water per mile driven. I also calculated the water footprint of my internet use, considering the production of materials and the maintenance of data centers. I also included the water needed to produce the electricity we use in our house based on the IEEE US national average of 95 L of water required per kW, and my ¼ of a month of electricity at home which equals 150 kWh.

Electricity, gas, and internet use water footprints:

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The results of the week of water footprint tracking reveal an enormous disparity between my real and virtual water footprint. It also represents the wide variation in water footprints between different materials and energy sources. In real water on average, I use 39.23 L of water for drinking, washing, cooking, and cleaning every day. In virtual water, I require an average of 2,558.38 L/day in food, an average of 200 L/day for hard goods, and 5,298.42  L/day in energy and internet – mostly due to burning ethanol in gasoline – for a sum total of my daily virtual water use at 8,056.84 L/day, and 8,096.07 L of daily water footprint total.

 

What is evident in this equation is that adding ethanol to gasoline requires an enormous investment of water for growing the corn that produces ethanol. Since I drove over 1000 miles during the week, gasoline represented 57.69% of my overall water footprint, which is contained in “Virtual Use Other” in the figure below. Typically, I drive about 270 miles a week, which would only represent about 15% of my daily water footprint.

 

Chart showing overall distribution of my water footprint:

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All of this combined gives my total water footprint per year at 2,946,967.94 L, the equivalent weight of about 500 full grown African elephants or 450,000 L more than the volume of an olympic sized swimming pool. My real water footprint represents just 0.48% of my overall water footprint, and my virtual water footprint from food represents 31.6%, and the largest portion of my footprint, “other,” mostly due to burning ethanol represents 67.92% of my overall footprint.

 

Of my virtual water footprint from food, coffee – which I generally have 2 cups of per day – coffee represents fully 10% of my water footprint for food, yet it providing next to no calories. Oil, eggs, and dairy account for a similarly large percentage and dried foods like rice and beans require a significant amount of water for production.

 

My water footprint of 8,096.07 L/day is significantly more than the watercalculator.org result of 4,326 L/day. This is due in large part to the fact that the watercalculator.org certainly did not include the water footprint of ethanol in its calculation of my 1,270 miles driven. This must be the case because the ethanol water footprint represents over 50% of my total water footprint. Even if I had driven only 270 miles, a more typical distance, ethanol alone would represent 15% of my overall footprint. I credit the likely reason for the nearly 500 L/day difference to my diet. I eat relatively little dairy and eggs, and the online calculator probably accounted for more than I consume.

 

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If I ate ¼ lb of beef a day it would add 1,751 L/day or 12,262 L per week of water footprint. I also assume that my water footprint value represented in this report is low because of some water footprint overlooked, such as the ethanol in the fuel used to transport all of my materials and foods around the globe. For average citizens, major water footprint reductions will result from driving less and using ethanol free fuel, eating less meat, and spending less time on the internet. The exercise of tracking water footprint gives insight into the burden that consumption has on the earth’s resources. It is important to remember that not all the water in my water footprint is consumed, but much of it will enter back into the water cycle.

 

Conclusion:

 

Considering that the ethanol in my gasoline contributed more than 4,500 L of water per day to my water footprint, over 50% of the total, when driving 1,270 miles in a highly efficient vehicle, it is critical to note the enormous water volume required to produce energy, particularly bio-fuels refined from corn. To transport anything requires water.

 

Streaming a movie on the internet for an hour requires 105 L of water for cooling data centers and producing the required energy to run the datacenter. That’s half a bathtub full for each gigabyte of internet use. With 4 billion people online for an hours a day, that is as much as 420 billion liters, more than twice as much water as is in Lake Michigan. With that level of resource use intensity, it is no wonder major tech corporations are building data centers in the far north to reduce the need for water and energy for cooling.

 

Clearly, not all the water in a water footprint is consumed. Water cycles, going from use to use, from mountains, to plains, to ocean, and back again. But, it is important to note what in our lives is water intensive, and to take care to use resources wisely. Since water, like carbon, is difficult to value monetarily, we use valuable water resources without incurring an expense, which leads much of virtual water use to go unnoticed. The exercise of calculating my water footprint honed my attention to the water embedded in the way I live. There is no escaping a water footprint, we cannot survive without food and materials that require water, but we can use water efficiently and minimize intensive use.

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Sources:

http://www.gracelinks.org/1408/water-footprint-calculator

https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/the-hidden-water-in-everyday-products/

https://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/how-many-gallons-of-water-does-it-take-to-make.html

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/mind-your-step-report-76803.pdf

https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/how-much-water-does-it-take-to-make-electricity

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=85&t=1

http://wfn.project-platforms.com/Reports/Report47-WaterFootprintCrops-Vol1.pdf

http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Hoekstra-2008-WaterfootprintFood.pdf

http://thewaterweeat.com

http://calrice.org/pdf/Water_footprint_of_US_diet_report.pdf

http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report16Vol2.pdf

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-01-19/opinion/0501190283_1_water-rain-runoff-conserve

http://www.bdlaw.com/assets/attachments/239.pdf

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oceanwater.html

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Replenish – Book Review

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“From that knowledge flows a moral truth: if water is essential to life, and it is finite, the ethical response is to share it with all life.” Sandra Postel, Replenish page 235

 

Water as a commons to all life is extremely vulnerable to anthropogenic activities and global climate change. This dynamic relationship that is both physical, economic, and ethical is the central issue of Sandra Postel’s new book Replenish. From the get go, Ms. Postel makes it clear that in the world of water, nothing at present is comforting; “If disasters related to droughts floods, and other extreme weather seem more common globally, it’s because they are… between 2005 and 2014, an average of 335 weather-related disasters occurred per year, nearly twice the level recorded from 1985 to 1995” (3). Throughout the book Ms. Postel describes 500-year floods in Colorado, the desiccation of river deltas around the globe, the deforestation of Brazilian rainforest, massive forest fires in New Mexico, overdevelopment of rivers in Europe, overdrawing of aquifers in California, soil depletion all framed by rational arguments as to why there is hope to replenish the earth.

 

Early in the book, Postel establishes that “When it comes to water, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future” (15). Postel hinges this argument on the staggering increase in the number and magnitude of flooding events. The water cycle has been dramatically transformed through infrastructure, global climate change, and humanity’s transformation of the landscape for agriculture and resource extraction, a warmer atmosphere that holds more moisture will drop more precipitation. In the chapter “Make Room For Floods” (67-84) Postel discusses ways to  mitigate extreme flooding events using “green infrastructure,” planting native plants around roadways and neighborhoods and in urban centers rather than laying concrete and creating impervious surfaces. Green infrastructure improves permeability and provides a natural catchment for potentially harmful runoff.

 

“Make Room For Floods” is preceded by a chapter called “Put Watersheds to Work” (43-66). This chapter discusses major fire events in New Mexico including the 2011 Las Conchas fire that devastated forests in tributary watersheds to the Rio Grande, burning 156,000 acres and causing Santa Fe and Albuquerque to have to shut off their pumps drawing from the river, depleting other resources instead. Postel refers to firefighting and prevention as part of the cause; forests meant to burn every 10-20 years had not burned in a century, and the fuel load caused a megafire that spread at nearly 1 acre a second (55) and cause approximately $2,150 of damage per acre burned, $246 million in total (57). Postel cites plans with “payments for ecosystem services” in the Loess Plateau where deforestation caused the Yellow River to carry far more sediment than it should, where the Chinese government paid between $49-$122 per hectare (2.47 acres) to reforest and prevent erosion. Now a program through the Santa Fe Watershed is doing prescribed burning, forest thinning, and fuel buffering to the tune of $700 per acre to prevent catastrophic fire. Had this been done on a large scale before Las Conchas, New Mexico could have saved as much as 150 million taxpayer dollars and maintained a better equilibrium in the Rio Grande watershed.

 

Chapter 6, “Fill the Earth” (107-128) is of particular importance because it highlights an often overlooked facet of the water cycle: soil. “The world’s soils hold about eight times as much water as all rivers combined” (108), writes Postel, and urges the reader to pay attention to the “hardworking microbial herd” below the surface. Postel’s mission to find out how to get more “crop per drop,” leads to agriculture and carbon. The organic carbon content of soil is an important indicator of how much water the soil can hold; “an increase of 1 percentage point in organic carbon can boost the volume of water in the top 20 centimeters of soil by an average of 12.5 millimeters… 13,600 gallons per acre” (110). The slew of staggering facts continues until the apex: “Storing one more inch of water in the world’s farmland soils would fill the soil reservoir with an additional 100 trillion gallons” (116).

 

The methods farmers can use to improve carbon content are simple – composting is good, but covercropping is essential: do not leave bare earth, maintain roots in the soils, especially those that deliver important nutrients, and don’t till heavily. Postel cites the famous underpants experiment, where microbial activity was tested according to their ability to consume a pair of whitey tighties in different soils – the more microbes, the better. South Dakota State University Extension buried cotton underpants to see how fast microbes would consume the cotton, drawing the carbon into the soil. In traditional tilled up, industrially cultivated soil, very little happened, the underpants didn’t change much, but in untilled cover cropped soil, the microbes devoured the briefs (111-112). The untilled and cover cropped sample is the soil that is resilient and holds water and will grow more crops in less space that are better prepared to resist drought, pests, and so on.

 

Postel goes on to discuss the controversial cattle industry. While Postel is in full agreement that large scale industrial feedlots where cows are raised eating grain grown on irrigated lands are bad, she provides compelling evidence that grazing bovines, if holistically managed, cattle can actually benefit the water cycle (119). Such grazing can actually create friendly habitat for birds and increase water infiltration, and also improve streamflow (125). The methods are to graze cattle in tight groups for a short time on natural rain fed forage, leaving plants in the earth. The mantra is no bare earth. The cattle will work organic material into the soil, fertilize it with dung, and aerate it with their hooves. Because they are feeding on grasses grown with green water from rainfall, the water footprint is much less significant and valuable for the ecosystem; it is “profitable to work with nature” (126) writes Postel.

 

The book delves into innovative methods for managing city water, such as New York City’s protection of upstate watersheds through conservation to maintain naturally clean water rather than building expensive treatment plants. She discusses Albuquerque’s groundwater depletion crisis and the wildly successful conservation response headed by Katherine Yuhas. Postel writes about recycling wastewater, and providing water for instream flows in deltas that have dried up – she discusses the importance of maintaining desert rivers. All in all, Postel’s Replenish captures a troubling moment for the world’s water and provides myriad concrete and practical solutions. Most fundamentally, Postel lays the groundwork for a 21st century ethic about water: “As we shift from the utilitarian view of water as a ‘right’ and a ‘resource’ toward the Earthrise view of water as the planet’s greatest gift, our moral compass will direct us toward sharing water, not only among ourselves but with all living things” (245). Replenish is an essential read for anyone interested in creating a sustainable, economically prosperous, and resilient future for the planet and for humanity. It is rigorous, well researched, and broad in scope, but most importantly, it offers a hopeful path, and one that after reading Replenish, does not seem so far out of stride.
Postel, Sandra. Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. Island Press, Washington, DC. 2017. Print.

Wake Up

Dear reader,

First a quote from Ralph Waldo Emmerson: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

In recognition of this vast planet and the breadth of humanity, this blog will serve as a space to communicate about thoughts, stories, and actions concerning humanity and the environment. Here I will share big and small, some that reveal the injustices and exploitation that humanity is capable of committing to one another and the earth. This is something we are all complicit in as living breathing beings who require resources to live.

The impetus for this blog coming now is that I am applying to join a delegation to go to the Katowice Poland for the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) with SustainUS, a youth-led organization advancing justice and sustainability by empowering young people to engage in advocacy at the domestic and international levels. This is a group of creative, compassionate, and highly dedicated youth, persevering on the road to a more just world.

With the right mix of information, inclusion, hard work, and responsibility, we are capable of creating a more just, more sustainable world, a world that can be resilient, a world where the future is bright. I believe there is no other way to see the future than the light at the end of the tunnel, the great beyond into which we and our progeny are uncontrollably propelled. Every act today will shed its load into the following moments. It is in that space we are forced to think to make the best choices now, and to do so requires immense empathy, for other people, for the earth, the air, and water, and for the other creatures who call this green-blue marble their home.

The intent here is not to raise guilt, but to raise awareness. We will delve into the footprint of humanity as we are today, and see if we might be able to lighten our load and tread more carefully as we grow from 7.5 billion today, to 8.5 billion in a decade, 9 billion, 10 billion.

Please read this blog as an open contributor. Comment in critical ways, ask questions, make it your space as well as mine. Send letters to the editor (me), and I will comment. This will be a dialogue, a place to join in the conversation about global climate change, about justice, about resources, about the will to live a good and active life.

As an individual naturally prone to water issues, that will likely make up much of the content of this page, but I intend for it to be a place to discuss a wide variety of issues, ideas, and innovations.

Thank you for coming,

Galen Hecht