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Watching our Water Weight

Watching our Water Weight
Cities
Scott Ballum
  • 11 march 2009

Amidst the debate over the multi-billion dollar bottled water industry (is it really a debate anymore?), rises another complication in our consumer relationship to water: sure, you’re bringing your own Kleen Kanteen, but how much water was used to make that? Or the jeans you’re wearing, never mind the burger you had for lunch? The Wall-Street Journal recently reported “it takes roughly 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer, as much as 132 gallons of water to make a 2-liter bottle of soda, and about 500 gallons, including water used to grow, dye and process the cotton, to make a pair of Levi’s stonewashed jeans.”

But doesn’t all of this water recirculate back into aquifers and oceans eventually? Well, some of it does, particularly when these numbers count water supplies used to grow grain to feed livestock or irrigate farms to grow ingredients, but much of the water used in factories will re-enter the system too polluted to be reused. And perhaps the bigger issue is that a global marketplace means goods are transported hundreds of thousands of miles (more water used up here) over long periods of time before water is released back into the environment. Not a big deal for manufacturing or farming done in water-rich areas of the world, say rainy Brazil, but what about areas already enduring or approaching a drought? WSJ:

Two-thirds of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the United Nations. In the US, water managers in 36 states anticipate shortages by 2013, a General Accounting Office report shows. Last year, Georgia lawmakers tried, unsuccessfully, to move the state’s border north so that Georgia could claim part of the Tennessee River.

Good Magazine released their latest Transparency issue this week, spotlighting US cities which have “sustainable, self-contained water supplies, and which cities are forced to turn to outside help.” It’s an interesting visualization, showing New York City as one of the largest importers of water at 396 billion gallons a year. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems, though: San Diego imports a mere 76 billion gallons, but 40% of that is pumped in from Sacramento, 444 miles away.

Tracking a water footprint is not quite yet a science. “When you try to reduce a complex subject into a single number, the methodology is so inconsistent and unreliable that it’s fraught with the possibility of manipulation and misinformation,” Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety for International Business Machines Corp, told the WSJ. But it is a real issue, and it is a real benchmark that we’re going to be hearing more about. Water-management experts have started to build models for “water offset” projects so that beverage companies and other heavy water users can soften their impact by funding water sanitation and conservation projects. PepsiCo recently piloted a program to help rice farmers cultivating 4,000 acres in India switch from flood irrigation to direct seeding, a planting method that requires less water and makes crops more resilient to drought.

[images via Zuma Press for WSJ (top); A collaboration between GOOD and Fogelson-Lubliner (bottom)]

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