Eating Our Water Woes
Where food and water collide, adorable rodents, and news from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine.
In 1890 John Wesley Powell returned from his westward adventures — including boating down the uncharted Colorado River two decades earlier — to testify to congress about water and the prospects of larger-scale colonization of in the west.
His testimony was pretty simple: there wasn’t enough water to sustain more than a scattering of small communities. In short, people shouldn’t move out West.
That wasn’t what Congress wanted to hear. So they didn’t listen.
Instead, they doubled-down on Manifest Destiny and fairy tales, and decided that there was no problem with water because the “rain will follow the plow.” God wanted people to move west and spread capitalism and Christianity so badly that of course he would change the weather patterns.
Strangely enough, that didn’t happen. So we drilled wells, a million straws sucking life from the aquifers. And we damned the rivers, without consulting the salmon and trout. We even named one particularly ill-conceived reservoir after Powell, which wasn’t an honor but rather a slap in the face, as it strangles the very river he loved so much.
Scientists from Powell through present day have warned us we are living on borrowed time. Today, we are barely starting to listen, now that we are forced to. The Colorado River is waning and the hydroelectric dams are on the verge of failing. It’s an understatement to say we’re in a bit of a pickle, along with the ecosystems and species that rely on not having a river run dry.
It sounds bleak, but I see a bright side. I see a chance to heal.
The problem with the Colorado River isn’t really drought. That just finally brought everything to a head. The problem is that the ecosystems of the West were never meant to to support 70 million people — especially people boxed away from nature in air-conditioned houses lining the cul-de-sacs of otherworldly-green subdivisions. Most of all, it’s not capable of supporting large-scale cattle ranches and farming.
Native nations managed to live in harmony with the West for 12,000 years (and probably a lot more than that), because they lived with the land, as part of it. Our European fore-bearers came in and managed to royally mess it up in every way possible in just a hundred years or so. We insisted on shaping it, forcing it, digging it, scraping it, poisoning it, and twisting it to our demands and whims, bleeding it dry of resources in search of a dollar, instead of accepting its boundaries and limitations.
Now that Las Vegas is banning lawns, the illusion is being lifted.
As green spaces are replaced with native plants, people in Las Vegas are realizing that they actually live in one of the harshest deserts in the world. And some are realizing that they don’t like it. It’s encouraging to see the illusion lifted. It’s unfortunate it took a breaking point for that to happen. But in the big picture, it’s positive.
It’s positive because we’re finally having to deal with reality. I liken it to the bare spots on the grocery store shelves we’ve had for a couple of years now. I love it. I love having to find a creative alternative to whatever I was seeking, or better yet just settling for nothing at all. It’s brilliantly refreshing to not have access to everything we want, at any time of day or night, and probably has some environmental benefits. Just as our reality shouldn’t be unfettered access to consumer goods, it shouldn’t be disguising a desert as an oasis, whether that’s in subdivisions or farm fields growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa, soy and potatoes, in a place that gets less than 5 or 10 inches of rain a year.
Which brings us to what we can do. Greet the ghost of Powell.
Or, more concretely, start listening to the scientists, and change our habits accordingly. There’s a lot of talk out West about we can do personally to reduce water use. One well-meaning journalist said he was going to cut his daily showers in half. That’s a valiant sacrifice. If a million of us did that, it would really add up. But it would still be a metaphorical drop in the bucket, which is why we need solutions based off of math.
The average person uses around 36,000 gallons of water a year, including watering the lawn. The average shower is eight minutes, with a 2-gallon-per-minute shower head. That means our shower consumes 16 gallons of water a day or about 6,000 gallons of water a year. Cut that in half and you save 3,000 gallons of water a year.
That sounds good, until you learn that 80 percent of Colorado River Basin water goes to agriculture, and more than 50 percent goes specifically to growing crops to feed cattle.
One pound of beef takes about 2,000 gallons to make (most of that isn’t what the cow drinks, but rather the irrigation for the crops that feed the cow). The average American eats at least 55 pounds of beef a year (that estimate may be on the low side, as other numbers I’ve found suggest average total meat consumption is 274 pounds a year). But even so 55 x 2,000 is 110,000 gallons of water used per year for one person’s beef diet, which means…
Three restaurant-size steaks equal a year’s worth of showers.
Regardless of where you live, your diet is probably adding to the water woes of the West, because western-states’ beef, as well as crops that cattle eat like alfalfa and soybeans, are exported across the country and the world.
Please don’t get huffy, or feel shamed by your diet.
What we put into our bodies is a highly emotional and personal subject. A lot of times it’s even how we define ourselves. And that makes it really difficult to have a conversation about. Even for those of us who want to change our meat-eating habits for health, environmental or animal cruelty reasons, can rarely do so. It’s just really hard to do.
But just because this is a difficult subject doesn’t mean we should sweep it under the rug or keep up our illusion. For me, learning the science behind the amount of water that goes into the food I eat has been making it a little easier to make the changes I want to my diet.
I started to look up more food, and here is what I found, in terms of gallons of water used per pound:
• beef 1,847
• pork 718
• chicken 518
• fruit 110
• veggies 39
• an egg 53.
Understanding the impact of our choices simply helps us make better-informed decisions.
What those decisions are will be different for each of us. To me, running these numbers changed something else in my thinking. I really don’t want to waste an egg now. Fifty-three gallons of water?! Add to that all of the people who grew it, picked it, shipped it and stocked it on the shelves, and I better realize just how valuable the food I have access to is.
These numbers also feel strangely encouraging, because it means we are actually capable of conserving a lot of water, with a relatively small amount of action. Cool.
And for the record, I’m all for saving water in other ways, like shorter showers and fewer lawns. Every bit helps.
If you are motivated to shift your diet, here are a few resources: for the health benefits of a more whole-food, plant-based diet, Dr. Greger has some really good info and scientific recommendations for various health problems; and if you want some easy recipes, try my uncle’s cookbook, which I edited and designed. Despite living in Ohio, he went totally plant-based years back, with no regrets.
But enough about water, let’s talk about woodrats.
Woodrats are delightfully large rodents (pack rats, actually), with fuzzy tails, cute white bellies, and elegantly long whiskers. The ones in Key Largo, Florida, build six-foot-tall stick nests, which help myriad species thrive in the tropical forests. I had the fortune to learn about those endangered woodrats and the people who have dedicated their lives to helping them while writing this article for Atlas Obscura a few weeks ago.
The night the article came out, we were camping in Colorado and heard a kerfuffle on the table. Our flashlight reveled a bushy-tailed woodrat (a cousin species to the Key Largo woodrat). I’d never seen one before, but I recognized it immediately. She must have heard we were now friends of the woodrat clan and came by to say hello.
News from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine
This morning we woke up to the first air of fall. I love the hint of the winter. Everything on these mornings feels crisp and full of possibility. When I lived for snowboarding, I particularly cherished the shift of seasons.
We’re still working on the house. Steve’s been scraping and painting the outside, which is making it really come alive. I’ve been busy with writing deadlines, but hope to jump in soon.
We’ve also been spending as much time as we can camping. Last summer slipped away and we wondered where it went, so we were determined not to have that happen again. I know nearly everyone has been in heat and drought this year, so I feel a bit guilty revealing that we’ve been hanging out up at 10,000 feet in cold air and rain for a good bit of the season. But I certainly don’t regret it!
A Parting Thought
Two photos captured my heartstrings and imagination this week. The first was of James Webb telescope photos on display on the giant screen at Piccadilly Circus in London. How uplifting to have these images as the backdrop in a busy city, instead of fashion advertisements and stock tickers. They show us not only the wonders of our universe, but inevitably give us a healthy dose of ego-squelching, as we see the insignificance of our tiny selves.
The second is a photo of a girl growing trees in a refugee camp in Rohingya. The story is short, and very much worth the read.
Happy almost autumn! May your days make you feel like dancing, exploring and laughing, a lot.