Hidden Water: 8 Ways We Use Water That Might Surprise You

Drought remains an all-too-common news story in the US but the silver lining is that a growing number of people are curious about how they can cut back on their water waste, and in many cases are willing to think outside the box to do it.

Enter the water footprint.

This clever measure of your overall water consumption helps you understand the direct and virtual ways in which you use water. The “direct” part of your water footprint is the amount of water you use in and around your home, school or office throughout the day. The hidden or “virtual” part includes the water it took to produce the food you eat, the products you buy, the energy you consume and even the water you save when you recycle. Virtual water makes up the majority of your water footprint.

As people learn about their virtual water use they’re realizing that water isn’t an infinite resource and that there is plenty we can do to use water more efficiently – which benefits both the environment and the wallet.

The growing interest in virtual water is just fine by us since it represents the bulk of an individual’s water footprint. Here are eight ways we indirectly use water and impact water resources:

Food’s virtual water

 1. The food you eat makes up the largest part of your overall water footprint – about two-thirds. The more processed foods, meat and dairy we eat, the more water we consume. Diets that include large amounts of meat, cheese and eggs require more water than diets that consist mainly of vegetables and grains. Similarly, diets that are made up of highly processed foods (like candy, chips and ready-made meals) require far more water than those that incorporate more whole foods like fruits and vegetables. We probably don’t need to tell you that eating more fruits and veggies is better for you, too, do we? (When it comes to reducing your meat consumption, think of Meatless Mondays.)

 2. Wasted food translates to wasted water. About 25 percent of all freshwater consumed annually in the US is associated with discarded food. On a global scale that’s a little more water than the volume of Lake Erie that is being wasted. The good news is that there are many effective ways to reduce food waste.

Energy’s virtual water

 3. You might find this shocking but your electricity consumption factors into your water footprint, too. That’s because the nation’s power plants – nuclear and fossil fuel-fired plants in particular – use a tremendous amount of water. Many of these thermoelectric power plants rely on outdated cooling technology that withdraws millions of gallons of water daily. In all, thermoelectric power plants account for a stunning 45 percent of total water withdrawals in the United States, including both freshwater sources such as lakes, and saline water sources, such as estuaries.

 4. Most renewable energy sources require little to no water. Switching to renewable energy – particularly wind and solar – can put a big dent in your water footprint. “Small-scale solar photovoltaic systems on rooftops,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “have suddenly become the most commonly built, most numerous electric generators, with individuals making decisions based on the cost of the solar panels and the price of their local electric utility.” In addition to shrinking my carbon footprint, one of the reasons I installed a rooftop solar electric system on my home was to reduce my water footprint.

 5. You can waste less water by using energy more efficiently. This means doing things like converting to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. Conservation can also help, e.g. turning off or unplugging electronics and appliances when they’re not being used. Five to ten percent of residential electricity use today is lost as “standby power,” feeding our plugged-in electronics and appliances when we’re not even actively using them. By plugging your electrical equipment into a power strip, you can cut power to several devices – e.g. TV, DVD player and surround-sound system – at once when you shut off the strip. Or convert to a “smart” power strip, which are surge protectors that cut power to other devices when a primary device is shut off.

 6.  Gasoline and oil consumption are also tightly bound to water use, because refining oil requires large quantities of water. For instance, it is estimated that the United States withdraws 1 to 2 billion gallons of water to refine nearly 800 million gallons of petroleum products every day. Driving less, carpooling and using public transportation as much as possible are good ways to avoid fossil fuel use and save water.

Water’s virtual water

 7. To move and treat water you need power, which needs… water! Wait, what’s that now? The process of moving drinking water requires electricity. So does the wastewater treatment process, and there is water embodied in that electricity. So by using water more judiciously – e.g. capturing rainwater for certain uses around the house and wasting less water in general – we save electricity and therefore save much more than the water you saved directly.

 8. Yes, even bottled water has a water footprint. The amount of water that goes into making the bottle packaging could be six or seven times more than the water inside the bottle. Want to kick the bottled water habit? Here are some helpful resources.

If you weren’t familiar with the water footprint concept before, hopefully you now can see why so many are interested in this subject. For more than 100 other water-saving tips check out this page.