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Virtual Water: The Next Frontier

by Doug Pushard

Water science is moving forward at an accelerating pace. With population growth and the end of plentiful, cheap water, the need to understand our water use and how to conserve water is now the topic of daily news and a common discussion item.

New phrases are now entering our lexicon — water footprint, virtual water, direct water use, indirect water use, gross water use, embodied water, blue water, green water, and sustainable water use — all are relatively new concepts and/or terms.

The science behind some of these ideas is still emerging, but it is clear that we will need to more fully understand the total costs of producing water and consuming everyday items in order to make the difficult decisions around water and economics in the future.

An average Santa Fe resident directly consumes on average 72 gallons per day, indoors and outdoors — more in the summer (because of gardens, more showering due to warmer weather, etc.) and less in the winter. This number is far lower than for most other communities.

Direct water use is just one side of the equation. Another side is the embodied or virtual water use necessary to support our lifestyle and economy. For example, one 17-ounce bottle of soft drink contains a little less than 17 fluid ounces of water, but consumes 42 gallons of water to produce the flavorings and another three gallons to manufacture and transport — for a whooping total of 46 gallons of water embodied in one 17-ounce bottle of cola!

A cup of java embodies 37 gallons of water, a banana 42 gallons and an egg 52 gallons. As this illustrates, one small breakfast already surpasses our direct water use for the entire day. In fact, average virtual water use in the United States is 1,980 gallons per person. These and other fun virtual water facts can be found at www.waterfootprint.org or in the new book Your Water Footprint.

Per Wikipedia, “a sustainable system is one that can continue in its current mode of operation indefinitely.” As both a sustainable community and one of the nation’s leaders in water conservation, Santa Fe needs to embrace these emerging concepts and determine how sustainable we truly are from a water perspective.

In truth, water is one of the pillars of our economy. With a limited water supply, our economy would shrink. Unfortunately we are seeing some of this in small communities in both Texas and California today. Closer to home, Santa Fe made national news a little more than a decade ago when we did almost run out of water — and both tourism and the local economy suffered.

Water is at the foundation of our economy. Caring about how much water we use directly is a great start. However, understanding the amount of water we are importing and exporting to support our way of life is the next step to building a resilient, secure community. Climate change and drought should only add to our sense of urgency in understanding how much water we really need to become truly sustainable.

Links:

Related Book: Your Water Footprint
Related Website: Water Footprint Network

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