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Drought: Gauging our 'water footprint'

Sun Advocate publisher

(Editors note: Based on the weather this winter, if things don't change, the area will be experiencing a drought. This is the first in a series of articles examining droughts, water use, water storage/sources, personal water footprints and what the impacts of a prolonged drought has done in the past and can do to the eastern Utah in the future).

How much water do each of us use each day? And how is that water measured?

These questions created the idea of formulating a water footprint for individuals. With dwindling natural resources in the world the "footprint" model has been used for a lot of different categories. The question when one creates a footprint is how deep into that individual users life does one go? In terms of water use, we can measure it just for what a person directly uses in their life each day. In article one of this series we brought up the fact that the average person uses 123 gallons of water each day. That would be for drinking, flushing the toilet, washing dishes, taking a shower, etc. It does not include watering of lawns, washing cars, or the filling swimming pools and hot tubs.

And it does not include what each of us really uses, when we consider other factors.

If one wants to drill down deeper, we can find a lot more water use than that. Almost everything we use as a tool in life or consume to eat requires water to create it. If we add those kinds of water use to our daily total, that amount could seem outrageous. But it is true.

What does all that have to do with drought? In this area the direct use really impacts how much water is being utilized from the system that supplies it. But in the more general sense, somewhere where each of us get our food, cars, toys, electronics, etc. from, a drought may well be going on.

Warmer climate

The world's climate is getting warmer. Climatic trends are changing. Few people dispute that it is happening, although they do dispute why it is happening. The fact is drought in other parts of our country and the world can really affect what happens to even our local population in Carbon County. For instance a drought in Texas last summer caused a lot of alfalfa hay to be shipped from the intermountain west (where water was plentiful last year) to that area and consequently this winter the prices for hay are higher, because there is less of it. That's just one small example, but it affects everyone who owns a horse or any type of cattle which eats alfalfa.

Drought anywhere should not be viewed as merely a natural phenomenon or event. Its impact on society is often a result of the interplay between the natural event (reduced precipitation) and the way society responds with management of existing supplies. People often compound the impacts of drought through the mismanagement of available supplies.

Public must help

One example of this occurs when outdoor watering restrictions imposed by community leadership are actually perceived by the general public as being premature or unnecessary. Often in these instances while people comply with the letter of the law, water use actually rises. Consequently, an informed and caring general public is an important ingredient to successful drought management.

"Education about water use is the best way to conserve it," says Jeff Richens, the district manager for the Price River Water Improvement District. "With that, when you ask the public to cut back they respond better."

And yet even with all the education that has been done on "slowing the flow," a recent Sun Advocate poll concerning the snow pack in the mountains where most of the counties water comes from showed that 17 percent of the population did not see that problem as being a substantial one.

Public response is part of the water footprint each of us creates whether it be a dry year or a wet year. Yet our lifestyle affects the water use all over the world, depending on what we buy, eat or consume in some other way. It's easy to just think locally about fresh water supplies, but in the coming years thinking globally will become more and more important, because fresh water supplies going to become more scarce as the population of the world expands.

Vital to economy

In some areas of the globe getting fresh water has always been a challenge. And not having enough fresh water in any one certain area can impede economic development even if all the other factors for creating a business or locating a business exist there. Carbon county often faces this challenge in bringing new businesses to the area because our water supplies are tight, even in good years.

The industry of the world, whether it be in manufacturing or in farming, is water intensive. Few people realize how much water it takes to grow the food we eat or to make the things we use. Here are some examples of the water it takes to produce various kinds of things that most of us use on a daily basis.

• One slice of bread (one ounce) takes about 10 gallons of water to create. This is because to produce one pound of wheat it takes a150 gallons of water to make it grow to maturity.

• One pound of chicken takes 500 gallons of water to produce. This not only includes what chickens drink while they are being raised but the feed that is grown to feed those chickens.

• One pound of corn takes 110 gallons of water to produce.

Hamburger = up to 18,000 gallons

• A hamburger (the meat only) takes between 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water. That is because not only is feed required but cattle drink a lot of water as well. Cattle are usually butchered out (depending on many factors) at between nine months and a year of age.

• A sheet of paper takes between ½ gallon and eight gallons of water to produce, depending on a lot of factors, but the average is about three gallons. A lot of the variation depends on the kind of wood that is used to make it.

• A pound of steel takes 30 gallons of water to make. This includes the processing of ore and the power generation that it takes to create the heat.

• A cotton shirt takes 700 gallons of water to make. Of this 86 percent of that water is for irrigation and includes the evaporation that takes place with cotton plants in the field. Another 14 percent of that water is comes from the water that is used to dilute the waste water that comes from the fields where it is raised because of high fertilizer content. The rest is for the various processes in making the cotton into a fabric.

• A cup of coffee takes 35 gallons of water to produce. Coffee production actually takes 2 percent of the global use of water for crop production.

These water use figures for various products show that when all is taken into account, the 123 gallons per day per individual is small indeed. Remember that all these figures vary somewhat, particularly with agricultural products because of soil conditions, the type of irrigation, drainage, etc. They are for simple comparisons only.

Are lifestyle changes even possible?

There are ways many of these uses could be mitigated, but that would require lifestyle changes that many people would not want to make. And it would also hurt businesses that produce certain products that require a lot of water to produce as well as some agricultural concerns.

While the last few days have been wetter and more is forecast for the immediate future what happens with local water supplies in the short and the long term is a problem everyone in the area will face.

And so will the ecologic health of eastern Utah as well.

Sources: Utah Division of Water Resources, The Water Footprint Network, Water Content of Things:The World's Water 2008-2009,

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