How everyone can help the California drought AND themselves

Posted on May 6, 2015


(Last Updated On: May 19, 2017)

I moved to California six and a half years ago. Every week since I’ve been driving to pretty much the same exit off the I-15 north. When coming back south, I always see Lake Hodges on my way home. The first couple years, it would look something like this:

lake hodges with water 1

On Google maps:

Lake hodges maps 1

Take a look at Google earth though, and here is what the “lake” actually, currently, looks like:

Lake hodges sat 1

Lake hodges sat 2

Lake hodges sat 3

A great deal of the lake is now barren. Look at those pictures. That’s not “the water level is a little lower.” That’s “the water is gone.” I have some clients who have been around the area for decades and apparently the lake has been pretty dry before, but everyone knows, as far we can tell, the drought in California is unprecedented.

A lot of attention has been given to the water cutbacks going on. Invariably, complaining happens with this. People who want a nice lawn for instance. Of course, those selling field turf have never been happier! (If you ever wanted an indication for how much external circumstances, often luck, can play a role in business, there you go.)

The other area that’s gotten a lot of attention is how in California, residentially, we don’t really use that much water, compared to overall water usage. It’s agriculture.


California is a huge producer of food for the country. Depending on the food, California may produce upwards of 90% of it. From Slate:

“California is the nation’s leading producer of almonds, avocados, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, grapes, lettuce, milk, onions, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, walnuts, and dozens of other commodities, according to a 2012 Department of Agriculture report (PDF). The state produces one-third of our vegetables and two-thirds of our nuts and fruits each year…Simply put: We can’t eat without California.”

This is why this post is about everyone. Not just Californians. This drought is on the entire country. You can’t expect Californians to lessen their shower times and call it a day. At the same time, you can’t exactly blame agriculture.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention, what I think should, is why does agriculture use so much damn water? Because people consume so much damn agriculture!

The Huffington Post actually ran a piece related to this, going over the amount of water it takes to produce various foods. It compared similar food groups. Tea vs coffee for instance. Which is why I didn’t really like this approach.

I enjoy some tea here and there. But we all know, whether we like to admit it or not, tea sucks compared to coffee. “No, no, I actually prefer tea. It doesn’t give me the anxiety.” Sure. As if you don’t like the anxiety.

You can’t frame this only as one food’s water footprint vs another. That ignores all the various impacts food has on us. You need more context than that. I’m all for saving water and helping out with this issue, but to hell with you if you think I’m giving up coffee in favor of tea to do so. It’s not going to happen.

This is a problem with so many environmentalist approaches. They keep asking people to voluntarily make life harder on themselves. People would be happy to drive electric cars…when they’re not demonstrably more expensive than gas cars. When they have a similar range as gas cars. When you can charge it anywhere like gas cars.

Is it at all surprising Californians have voluntarily, barely lowered their water use? From the Associated Press:

“Despite the dire warnings, it’s also still not clear that Californians have grasped the seriousness of the drought or the need for conservation. Data released by the board Tuesday showed that Californians conserved little water in March, and local officials were not aggressive in cracking down on waste.

A survey of local water departments showed water use fell less than 4 percent in March compared with the same month in 2013. Overall savings have been only about 9 percent since last summer.”

The consequence of not lowering their water use was what exactly? The benefit of doing so was what? And don’t tell me about long-term consequences. Humans, on balance, do not think long-term. This is why a fine is all but guaranteed to be implemented. The immediate pain of paying money will, at some dollar amount, outweigh the pain of not having a green lawn.

“Don’t you care about the environment?”

I think most people actually do. But not at the expense of themselves. Tough to worry about the environment when most are worried about the next few days.

A will manifests when a way is shown. Showing people the way is where this gets lost. How do you lessen your water footprint AND gain a personal benefit? Or in the least, don’t have to make a personal sacrifice?

For at least two-thirds of people, IN AMERICA NOT JUST CALIFORNIA, there is a very clear avenue: Lose some weight. Which is how I like to look at this. Where can you say, make a more gentle water footprint, and eat less calories?

There is one obvious solution to this: Eat less overall. That helps everything. Eat less food and you’re pretty much guaranteeing some good things water wise.

The next, maybe not so obvious help: Eat less beef.

NOT don’t eat meat. That doesn’t work. You can’t ask people to do that. But, I think it’s reasonable to ask people to eat less beef.

First, beef uses a whopping three times more water than chicken and pork. For every pound of beef you have, it takes nearly an enormous two THOUSAND gallons of water to make it.

  • Beef 15400 liter/kg, or 1845 gallons / lb.
  • Chicken 4330 liter/kg, or 519 gallons / lb.
  • Pork 6000 liter / kg, or 719 gallons / lb.

Beef, compared to say chicken, and most pork cuts, has more calories. Win for water resources; win for the person.

Beef, compared to say bacon, causes the same level of, if not less, excitement taste wise.

Beef and pork are roughly the same price. Whereas chicken is cheapest. (Data here.)

Beef, compared to other meats, may have issues with cancer. Win for water resources; win for the individual. (I’m not going into the details of this in this post. I know this is a hot topic for meat lovers.)

Beef, compared to chicken, has greater amounts of fat. Chicken tends to be predominantly protein. This is great from a weight-loss perspective, as a sufficient protein intake during dieting is a big win. This is one reason you don’t ask people to not eat meat. Protein is the most satiating nutrient. Take meat away from people and some may gain weight. Or some will have more issues with dieting. Or some will not lose fat as well.

This is where we run into issues with the vegetarian / vegan crowd. It’s not the eating style I have issues with. It’s the high horse, “I’m better than you because I eat this way” types we’ve all run into.

Because say I want a glass of milk, an animal product, rather than bread.

  • Bread requires 1827 liters of water per kilogram
  • Milk requires 940 liters of water per kilogram

Or say I’m debating between milk and nuts. Both things people often look at as protein sources.

  • Milk requires 940 liters of water per kilogram
  • Nuts require 2780 liters of water per kilogram

Your Trail Mix may be three times worse than my animal product.

If we make this more about water, the same principle holds true:

food group co2 per calorie

Note how chicken, fish, pork are *less* intensive than fruit.

Yet for some reason nobody is saying, “We should all go on a snacks / sugar diet.”

“No, of course not. Vegetables and fruits have tons of benefits. And only eating sugar wouldn’t be healthy. You have to look at more than that.”

But this gets lost when we look at vegetarian / vegan habits. Merely making a vegan choice does not guarantee a more environmentally friendly choice.

->This isn’t really about the environment as it is our ability to survive in the environment. Lack of water affects humans as much as it does “the environment.” The earth will be fine. We may not.

Not only is eating vegan a miserable choice for many, it’s a choice that doesn’t need to be made. Exchange chicken, fish, pork in favor of fruit, and, CO2 wise, you’re actually making matters worse! Depending on what you exchange your animal products for, you could be making water issues worse too.

We need to look at the whole picture. What helps people AND whatever environmental issue we’re trying to address? Because going around telling people to take shorter showers, have a shitty looking lawn, just give up all meat (give up bacon? really?), don’t give water refills at restaurants unless it’s asked, memorize the water differences between all these different foods…going around asking people to make their lives harder, isn’t going to happen. Until it has to happen.

Making a food choice that’s simple -“just eat less or no beef”- can help people lose weight, can likely help lower cancer risk, can still allow for more than adequate protein intake, allows us to still eat bacon (crucial), if anything will probably save some money, and has the biggest impact on water use, AND CO2 emissions? Now we’re talking.

All water footprint numbers from here:

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.