The Quickest, Easiest Way to Save Water

By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy

I admit it: I’m kind of obsessed with saving water. Not only have I done everything possible at home (low-flow toilets, showerhead, washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc.), I even stealthily installed a faucet aerator in the bathroom of a favorite restaurant of mine. Since bathrooms in businesses get a lot of use, I couldn’t resist the 4.5 gallons per minute savings. But what if I told you that you could save even more water than me, without being a total weirdo? What if it was free?

In the United States, the average person uses about 69 gallons of water at home indoors per day (25,295 gallons per year) and about 100 gallons of water per day (36,500 gallons per year) if you include outdoor use like watering a lawn. While that is already a lot of water, this number doesn’t even represent all our water use. In fact, the water we use at home is just 3.6% of our total water use! Another 4.4% is industrial, and a whopping 92% is agricultural (food and fiber).

Home water use is declining in the U.S., and you can join in on the fun by saving about 25 gallons per day with standard conservation measures (like low-flow showers). But if you really want to use less water, you can save far more than that by making one tiny change in your diet on a weekly basis.

The trick here is to reduce the portion of water use that goes to agriculture (92%) by choosing different foods. Just as we can calculate a person’s “carbon footprint” to measure their total contribution towards climate change, we can do the same with water. Your “water footprint” includes both your direct and indirect water use (e.g. the water used to produce products you buy), and includes both the consumption and pollution of water. In the U.S. the average annual water footprint per capita is 750,777 gallons; the global average is less than half of that at 365,878 gallons.

So, here’s the quickest, easiest way to reduce your water footprint: Once per week, eat a soy burger instead of a hamburger. That’s it. That single swap saves you a whopping 579 gallons each time, and if you do it once per week it adds up to saving 30,111 gallons per year (more than your total indoor water use at home).

If you also drink a cup of soy milk instead of cow’s milk you can save another 47 gallons each time (2,447 gallons per year if you make the switch once per week). So between the burger and the milk, that’s a total savings of 32,559 gallons per person per year, enough to take 814 baths. Trust me, choosing soy products instead of cow products is a lot easier than trying to save that much water at home (and way easier than installing aerators at restaurants, which requires stealth).

Think about that: you could shut off your water at home (no toilet, no shower, no washing machine, etc.) and still have less impact than switching from beef to soy once per week*.

Inspired? The average American eats 57.3 pounds of beef and drinks 20 gallons of milk per year; swap that all out for soy and save 115,396 gallons of water each year! If you don’t like soy, there are plenty of other options.

You can educate yourself on how much water various foods and drinks require at a fantastic web site put out by the Water Footprint Network. (Before you click over, let me warn you: you may not want to know.)

So if you find yourself pulling your hair out because you can’t afford a front-loading washer, or if it starts to seem like a good idea to leave a spare aerator and a wrench in your backpack (just in case), remember there’s an easier way.

* Note that if you wanted to offset your outdoor water use as well as indoor use, be prepared to switch another 1.6 cups of milk a week for soy milk.

For all of the actual calculations used in this article, see the spreadsheet I created.

(Image: Water drop. Source: Flickr user Casper H. Petersen via a Creative Commons license.)

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. He also loves to cook delicious vegan food. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy

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Jon Fisher
Jon Fisher2 years ago

You certainly don't have to go vegan to save water! Just cutting back a little bit on beef and pork in particular can have a really big impact. I think a lot of people are turned off by labels or absolute commitments, so it's always good to just look at the impact you can have through small steps.

Loesje vB
Loesje vB2 years ago

Well, I try to save water a lot as I can but I am not a vegan. Thanks for your post Jon Fisher.

Anne F.
Anne F.3 years ago

Skipping the beef burger and a glass of milk in favor of food with color: tubers are filling!

Ava Torre-Bueno
Ava Torre-Bueno3 years ago

@Everyone worried about soy: read this blog -- The Weston A. Price Foundation is one of the primary groups responsible for spreading some of the misinformation that you may have heard about soy products.

Veronique P.
Veronique P.3 years ago

Exactly! a Vegan diet saves more water than a meat eater who showers only once a week in a year.

Elsie Hovav
Elsie Hovav3 years ago

thanks for the insight

James Hager
James Hager3 years ago

good information to have, thanks!

Jon Fisher
Jon Fisher3 years ago

@Julie W:
All food uses a lot of water, but the difference between beef and some plant foods is enormous:
Also, the primary research this article is based on looked at the ACTUAL water footprint of specific soy products in the Netherlands. The soy was a mix of irrigated and rain-fed (and organic and non-organic).

@Dawn C:
You can indeed purchase powdered soy milk or even coffee creamer; my wife brings them when she travels since she loves coffee.

@Everyone worried about soy:
No need to eat soy if you don't like it. Cut back on beef and pick any bean / legume or grain food to replace it (nuts have a lower water footprint than beef, but not by as much as other plant foods) and you will be saving immense amounts of water. I'd also note that a lot of the concerns people have raised about soy have been disproved in the scientific literature. It can be difficult to know who to trust, but current peer-reviewed journal articles are always where I start (since there's so much misinformation available on the internet).

Frans Badenhorst
Frans Badenhorst3 years ago

they taste better (soy burgers, especially the spiced ones) than the meat anyway....... and water will NEVER be manufactured by humans hey....

Echo M.
Echo M.3 years ago

Considering how much chemical mutation has gone on with soy?? No thanks. Eat soy, thanks to Monsanto, poison yourself.

I find it totally unacceptable that you are advocating GMO foods.