Easy Ways You Can Reduce Your Water Footprint, According To An Expert

All life on Earth relies on water. From the air we breathe to the food we grow, this simple molecule makes existence on this pale blue dot possible. Although water covers more than 70% of the planet's surface, nearly 97% of that water is undrinkable (via NASA). The small percentage of freshwater that humans can use comes from the same sources it has for millennia — precipitation and existing groundwater stores. Unfortunately, climate change, pollution, and humanity's expanded global dominance threaten this already limited supply, with experts predicting that by 2050, nearly 60% of the world's population will face water shortages (via Scientific American).

"Freshwater is Earth's most precious resource," confirms Ric Miles, director of the nonprofit Alliance for Water Efficiency. In an exclusive interview with House Blog, Miles shares his advice for consumers to conserve their water use at home and ensure the well-being of all life on the planet. The first step is understanding your water footprint, i.e., "the total amount of water that you consume in your day-to-day life."

As Miles explains, "This footprint includes all water usage associated with the food you eat, the energy you use, the products you buy, as well as the water that you use in your home for showers, cooking, cleaning, drinking, [and] irrigation." Once you understand how you use water, he says, you can reduce your consumption to help preserve the limited amount of freshwater humans can access.

Fix your leaks — and fast

After you've gained a comprehensive understanding of your individual water footprint, you can start tackling your biggest sources of household water waste. "The lowest hanging fruit is leaks," says Ric Miles. Fourteen percent of all household water consumption comes from the water you didn't intend to use. Nationwide, this amounts to a jaw-dropping trillion gallons of water every year — devastating news for millions of people in the American West living during the largest drought in over a thousand years (via CNN).

Miles recommends using Flume, an app focused on reducing water usage at home, to spot leaks as soon as they happen. Instead of being notified by your water company after gallons upon gallons of water have disappeared, Flume's easy-to-install sensor can alert you to any aberrations in your water usage immediately. Flume can also help identify water efficiency elsewhere in your home, including your sprinkler systems and, as Miles says with a smile, "yelling at Jimmy for wasting too much water in the shower!" Not only can Flume help you reduce water waste, but it can also reduce your water bill, making water conservation good for the planet and your wallet.

Look closely at your lawn

The American dream may be built on a single-family house with a lush, green yard, but, warns Ric Miles, "residential homes with lawns tend to be the most significant water guzzler." But before you join the anti-lawn movement, you may first want to consider increasing the efficiency of your home's sprinkler system. About 70% of a property's total water usage comes from lawn sprinkler systems, says Miles, and eliminating water waste there can have an enormous impact on your water footprint.

Take this 2017 survey from the University of Minnesota. Of the 900 respondents in the suburban St. Paul/Minneapolis metropolitan area, the majority reported that their home irrigation systems did not function properly. Three-quarters of sprinkler systems had one or more leaking heads with over a quarter of respondents reporting at least five leaking heads. Other waste happened when sprinklers watered sidewalks and streets or when automatic systems watered lawns even when conditions didn't call for it – for example, after a rainstorm. Simply adjusting these water habits could keep lawns healthy without using unnecessary water.

In contrast, "large commercial buildings (such as high-rise apartments) are actually quite efficient when it comes to per capita water usage," says Miles. Even if urban living isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change, the United Nations says that cities are well-equipped to adapt, including the ways that they invest in water resources.

Evaluate your food choices

The water we use every day doesn't just come out of our faucets or sprinklers. It's also integral to our food systems. Because some foods are more water-intensive than others, "your diet can greatly affect your water footprint," explains Ric Miles. In general, plant-based foods require far less water than animal-based foods. Research conducted by UC Davis found that a single pound of beef uses anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 gallons of water, mostly used in the growing of grain and grass fed to the animals (via UCLA). Likewise, a gallon of cow's milk uses nearly 2000 gallons of water. Compare that to a pound of tofu, which only requires around 300 gallons of water — about the same amount of water used to grow a pound of unprocessed oats.

But lest you think all plant-based foods are created equal, consider the case of nuts. Miles points out that "it takes about the same amount of water to grow a pound of almonds" as it does a pound of beef. Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are some of the most water-intensive crops in farming, with shelled almonds needing about 80 gallons of water per ounce produced, while pistachios require far less, though still a considerable 19 gallons per ounce (per the National Peanut Board). Still, there's a strong water conservation argument for cutting out or at least reducing animal products in your diet. "There are a lot of actions consumers can take to reduce their water footprint," notes Miles, and examining what you eat is part of that process.

Embrace technology

Many people dismiss the urgency of the climate crisis by saying that the incredible technology humans have invented will solve all of our problems. With so much water in our oceans, the argument goes, certainly science can find a way to transform it into fresh water. Unfortunately, desalination — the process of removing salt from seawater through evaporation and reverse osmosis in order to make it drinkable — is energy intensive and expensive (via Save the Water). And currently, the desalination process produces more brine than it does freshwater, presenting water scientists with yet another problem to solve.

Still, with more power coming from renewable sources like solar and wind, desalination may play a substantial role in solving the water crisis. Ric Miles agrees. "Looking forward, I anticipate that we'll continue to see more desalination plants coming online, albeit I expect plenty of controversy to accompany these implementations!" In our homes, Miles believes that greywater systems — used water from sinks, showers, and laundry channeled outside to irrigate lawns and plants (via Green Coast) — will become commonplace in new construction. But, he warns, greywater systems are notoriously difficult to install in existing homes. In the meantime, consumers can use technology like Flume to gain awareness of their water usage and prevent waste wherever possible.

Don't take fresh, clean water for granted

As you travel along your sustainability journey, you will find you're gaining a better sense of how we all can be better stewards for Earth's precious and finite resources. This awareness then presents you with an opportunity to use those resources as efficiently as possible. When it comes to water, notes Ric Miles, "the easiest and most affordable way to increase supply is to reduce demand." The less water we use, the more will be available for the nearly 10 billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050 (via the United Nations).

If that number sounds scary, that's because it is. But population growth doesn't have to determine a tomorrow where clean water is reserved for only a small number of people. "My biggest hope for the future is that our society attributes real value to the limited resources that we have access to," Miles tells House Blog. "How realistic this is comes down to individual choices that we make and regulations and investment at the government level. I'm hopeful that we'll see an improvement in both in the coming years!" The fact that you're reading this article means you're already well on your way.