Water we waiting for?

Posted: November 16, 2007

WATER IS the one thing none of us can live without. But it now seems the well may be running dry, and closer to home than expected.

Water woes in developing countries are no secret. But the Associated Press recently noted the U.S. government's prediction that 36 states, including Pennsylvania, will have a water shortage within five years. Even now, a drought in Georgia has led to severe cutbacks, governmental prayers for rain and an ongoing "water war" with Florida and Alabama.

Norfolk just enacted water-conservation rules, and a town in Tennessee has almost completely run out, limiting service to three hours a day. The western U.S. faces large-scale groundwater depletion. Lake Mead, which supplies Las Vegas and parts of California, is 100 feet below normal and draining rapidly. And in San Diego, there's talk of an "impending Armageddon" of water as the San Joaquin River Delta gets lower.

All in all, AP says, "Across America, the picture is critically clear - the nation's freshwater supplies can no longer quench its thirst." Obviously, if we're not yet in a nationwide water crisis, we will be in a disturbingly short time. And access to fresh water is a life-and-death issue.

Better irrigation and less-leaky faucets will only make a dent - we need big-time water efficiency and conservation solutions, and we need them now.

The good news is that scientists have found an area of water inefficiency, where a basic change in our habits would free up huge quantities of water.

The change? Stop eating meat and other animal products.

Even cutting down would significantly save water. David Pimentel of Cornell University points out that while wheat requires 117 gallons of water to produce a pound of food, beef requires 5,165 gallons a pound - a ratio of nearly 50 to 1. That's a lot of water being thrown out unnecessarily. (Meat isn't required for a healthy diet, according to the American Dietetic Assn.).

True, wheat doesn't have the same amount of protein or calories as beef. So Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, along with Amy Vickers, ran the numbers and still found a huge imbalance: Beef consumes seven times the amount of water per ounce of protein as wheat, and almost 25 times as much per calorie.

Pork and chicken need less water than beef, but potatoes and corn need less than wheat or rice. And even the thriftiest animal product takes more water than the thirstiest plant-based food. However you want to measure it, every bite of meat is a vote to waste precious water.

TO REVERSE this trend, two initiatives would help:

An education campaign by the USDA to explain how much water is used in different foods, and fair pricing of goods, including the cost of depleting groundwater. While this could increase the retail cost of produce, a greater and more telling increase would apply to animal products.

In this scenario, it doesn't matter whether people agree that discarding animals' lives is an unethical waste, and it doesn't matter whether they want to save the planet or let it fry. If Americans start paying the real cost of water and check the state of their wallets, the water supply - and all of us - will benefit.

"Cutting the intake of animal products in half and replacing them with highly nutritious vegetable products would reduce the water intensity of the U.S. diet by 37 percent," Postel writes. Achieving this by 2025 would save "256 billion cubic meters per year - a savings equal to the annual flow of 14 Colorado Rivers. Many other benefits would result as well - including reduced heart disease, less cruelty to animals and less pollution of streams and bays from industrial animal feedlots."

This solution not only results in less freshwater used, but also in more freshwater kept fresh. And it's a solution you can start enacting the very next time you pick up a fork. *

Vance Lehmkuhl is the online editor of the Daily News.

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