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Water 'Footprint' Reveals California's Relentless Thirst

What's Your Water ‘Footprint’?
Water 'Footprint' Reveals California's Relentless Thirst
GUESTSHeather Cooley, Co-director of the Water Program for the Pacific Institute. Ann Tartre, Executive Director of The Equinox Center, a research and policy center in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Most people are familiar with the concept of a carbon footprint. It measures how people's businesses or lifestyles increase greenhouse emissions. Knowing what impact we have on the world causes some people to adjust their habits. Now there's an assessment of how much water we consume in California. I'd like to welcome my guests, Heather Cooley is co-director of the water program for the Pacific Institute. COOLEY: Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Ann Tartre is here, executive director of the Equinox Center of San Diego. TARTRE: Nice to be here. CAVANAUGH: Californians use about 140 gallons of water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, watering their gardens and other uses. But there's also water required to produce all of the goods that we consume, to produce our food, our cellphones our cars. Everything that we encounter in our daily lives has a water requirement. CAVANAUGH: You talk about virtual water importation. COOLEY: Part of the water required to produce products. Some of that is actually held within the product. If you think about an orange, there is water in that product. But there's also water consumed at the location where that product was produced. And so when we think and look at trade flows both into and out of California, those trade flows really represent flows of water, virtual water so to speak, through the movement of these goods around the world. CAVANAUGH: How do you actually make a calculation about how much water is used to create or to import -- create the things that we use that are imported from outside of our state or country? COOLEY: That is an incredibly complicated analysis. But there is a group which is developed a methodology for calculating these water footprints. And it's a standard methodology that's used in all of these assessments. And they're evaluated the water intensity, the gallons of water per ton of product for different products produced around the world. And they're done that on a country by country basis. We supplemented that information with information on California's products and how much water is required to produce those. We looked at various agricultural products again. Meat and dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Also in terms of the industrial goods we produced. And based upon water use data that we have in California, we were able to come up with these water factors as well. And those are in gallons per ton of product. And then we looked at trade flows into and out of California. And based on those 2pieces of information we're able to look at that flow of virtual water. CAVANAUGH: So in the same way that someone might look at how much energy is extended to import a fruit from South America rather than just buying one that's grown here, you do a similar calculation when you talk about products coming in from – after being produced by another country, how much water was used to create that item that we are in essence using here in California. CAVANAUGH: That's absolutely correct. TARTRE: Now, taken all together, this report finds California is a net importer of water. And it's one of what you say, one of the most surprising results of this water footprint study. Why is that surprise something COOLEY: Well, I think that California is a major producer of agricultural products. And many of those products are shipped, some of them consumed here, but some are shipped out into other states or other countries. And I had sort of assumed that that's how we were exporting water. And I was quite surprised by the results that we found. And what we found essentially is that we are using around 38 million feet of water to produce products here within California. But we are exporting the equivalent of about half that water to other parts of the United States or other nations. CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm sorry, were you finished? COOLEY: One thing, we're also importing the equivalent of about 44 million feet of water to produce the goods that are then imported into California and then consumed here. Now, that may have changed over time, and we're looking back over time to see if that has changed, but in order to support the population here in California, we are essentially importing water to support us. CAVANAUGH: Ann, the Equinox Center released findings earlier this year about water usage in San Diego. I know you've looked over the specific institute report. What's your take on it? TARTRE: Well, first I have to say kudos to Pacific institute. Equinox center believes what gets measured gets managed better. I think the report they've put out is just one step further in having us all understand how much water we're consuming in the big picture. It's good because now we know that there might be ways to better manage our local and global water resources. And we do measurement every year in our quality of life dashboard of direct use of water, and our latest data shows it's about 135gallons per person per day. But having this broader conversation about what is our true water footprint makes a lot of sense as it will help us to create better policy for managing water. CAVANAUGH: Back to your report and your comment about what you can more than, you can manage. Your report this summer recommended some really simple fixes that could save a remarkable amount of water. And you were talking about indoor water usage. Installing things like low-flow toilets and washers that manage water more reasonably. How much did you say that we could save with those quick fixes? TARTRE: We think we can be 30% or efficient with our water by doing those things. Only 3% of residents in San Diego County are using the most efficient washers or clothes technology. And there's more outdoors. Most of our water in San Diego County is used for outdoor landscape. CAVANAUGH: Right. And this is potable water, we're not talking about any recycled or gray water. TARTRE: That's correct. CAVANAUGH: Heather, I guess many other cities have been taking these assessments for a while. How we deal with this precious resource, how we use it inside and outside our homes. But the water footprint assessment that we've seen, is that aimed at looking at water consumption in a new way? COOLEY: It is. And it's not meant in any way to work against our household uses of water. I think it's important that we are as efficient as possible. But the footprint allows us to look at the global scale. And global water issues are related to local water issues. We've thought of management as a local issue for so long. But there are trends at the global level that affect us. Our report indicates that we are a net importer of water. That does suggest that water resource conditions in other parts of the United States and other parts of the world from which we are importing products can't affect us. So if there is a drought in the Midwestern United States as we're currently increasing, that can increase our vulnerability as a result of higher prices, and our ability to even obtain those goods. CAVANAUGH: Is information like this at getting people to change their habits or policy makers making policy changes? COOLEY: It's aimed at both. The average person in California uses about 1,500gallons as a result of their water footprint. That's your household useless and your consumption of other goods. And about half of that water use is a result of meat and dairy products and the consumption of those products. We can look at our own consumption habits, the total amount that we're consuming, the types of things that we're consuming, and make an effort on an individual level to change our habit to eat les meat and dairy product, own less items and have a lower water footprint. And that's important on the personal level. But there are certainly policy implications. It does suggest that there is an interest in trying to resolve or solve global water issues. It allows us to look at state and national policies around subsidies and how that's affecting the price we're paying for water. Who's paying for those benefits and who's benefiting the benefits? CAVANAUGH: It seems water in San Diego becomes a bigger and bigger issue as time goes on. The price of water, where we're getting our water, how much we're using, whether or not we have had a good year when it comes to rains. We're planning for future water needs with the Carlsbad desalination plant. How do you think understanding this larger idea of the water foot present could inform our future water use decisions? TARTRE: There's a couple of connections. Obviously the personal side. But on the policy side, we clearly have close ties to Mexico and manufacturing operations and agriculture in Mexico, so this shows us how linked our water consumption is to other countries around the world, is a good one in particular because we do have the close ties to the other side of the border here. We can be thinking about that. I think also the types of businesses, San Diego imports about 70% of its water to the region. And I think this kind of report that can help us understand what types of products are high water users versus lower ones could help us also think about what type of businesses do we want to try to attract and retain here in San Diego County, and how much will agriculture play a role in our region in the future. CAVANAUGH: Keeping it to San Diego, do you feel from your interaction with policy-makers and leaders in San Diego and people in general that there is developing a more realistic view of the kind ever water resource that we have here in San Diego and that there are limits to what it is that we can do considering the resource we have here and how precious it is? TARTRE: Absolutely. I think the level of consciousness in San Diego has been raised significantly over the past couple of decades. And the water authority and mayors and others have been doing great work around raising the consciousness. And I think studies and polls of the region show that a vast majority of people in San Diego County think that water is one of the top-3 issues that we need to deal with. CAVANAUGH: How big a challenge is it going to be to get the concept of the water footprint in the door of policy-makers? COOLEY: Well, I think it is a relatively new concept here in the United States, although the concept has been discussed internationally going back into the 90's. There is a lot of interest in it. Companies are now starting to look at their water footprint and thinking about how they're using water in their operations and what sort of risks and vulnerabilities do they face. The State of California is it also looking at the water footprint. In the state's water plan they are making mention of it. So I think we're seeing that trend. People increasingly are recognizing that we're listened through our water use and energy use. So people are very interested in this topic and are really just trying to understand what it is and what it means. CAVANAUGH: What about someone who says I couldn't do anything that increases carbon emissions, now I can't do anything that uses water! We're being hemmed in from all sides! What's your answer to someone like? COOLEY: I think it's important that we don't think about extremes. We can make small efforts in our lives to reduce our water use. Just driving one less day, or not watering your lawn, or replacing it with a more water-efficient landscape. There are smaller actions that we can take individually. CAVANAUGH: The Equinox Center report earlier this summer that I talked about described water use as the biggest resource challenge facing San Diego. Could that definition be expanded to include California? COOLEY: Yes, absolutely. And I think around the world. I think water resource challenges are increasing around the world. We're seeing issues around scarcity, water quality, and with climate change on the horizon and continued population and economic growth, those challenges could be intensified. Although I will note that there are a lot of solutions available. Conservation and efficiency being one of them, alternative supplies. I think there are a lot of options available for more sustainably managing our water resources in the future.

Most people are familiar with the concept of a carbon footprint. That assessment measures how people's businesses or lifestyles increase greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing what impact we have on the world causes some people to adjust their habits.


Now there is an assessment of how much water we consume in all aspects of our lives in California. The Pacific Institute is releasing research on our "water footprint."

"This report is a way to think about how we support our consumption habits. We think about water locally, but we are connected elsewhere in the world," said Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute's water program.

She says the "water footprint" report gives us a new way to think about how we use water in our daily lives.

"We only use a small amount of water in our homes, but it's required to produce nearly everything we consume," she said. "It means that drought in the Midwest and in China can affect us through the consumption of goods. Droughts and scarcity concerns can raise the price of goods and prevent us from accessing things."

Cooley said the average Californian uses 1,500 gallons of water per day.


"That’s a combination of our direct use of water in our homes but also in the use of water embedded in the products that were consuming," she said. "Secondly, California is a net importer of water, meaning we’re importing water in the forms of goods and services produced outside of California into the state for consumption here."

Ann Tartre, executive director of the San Diego non-profit think tank The Equinox Center said her organization's research is based on ability to measure progress, and the water footprint report is a "big step."

Corrected: April 1, 2023 at 1:01 PM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.