PUBLISHED: 29 October 2017

My everyday water decisions

A useful starting point in the exploration of water impacts is the concept of the water footprint. Much like the now-familiar carbon footprint, a water footprint tells us how much water is consumed and altered (through water quality impacts) over the lifetime of a product. To produce a single cup of coffee, for example, coffee beans must be grown, harvested, processed, and transported – all these activities require water and produce wastewater that requires assimilation. In fact, The Water Footprint Network estimates the water footprint of coffee is 130 liters per cup ! Like with coffee, when you dig into the story behind everyday products and activities, it becomes clear that we can have a significant impact on water.

An important facet of the water footprint is the distinction between global and local water impacts. When you pour yourself a cup of coffee, you aren’t seeing the 130 liters of water go into the cup along with it, because coffee’s water footprint is spread across the globe. Most of the products we consume come from around the world, and the water used to bring us these products is likewise sourced from locations around the world. However, we can also have a local water footprint. The water you use for showering or watering your lawn, for example, comes from the watershed(s) in which you live. Your local water footprint may feel more tangible, but it is important to consider both global and local water consumption.

Different objects representing the decisions someone makes combining into a bucket of water decisions

The water footprint concept is a helpful way to understand how your daily activities can use water. However, the impact that we can have on water is not restricted only to the quantity of water consumed in the production and transportation of goods and assimilation of associated pollutants. Indeed, our impacts to water quality are also important to consider; not only do animals and plants depend on high quality water, but humans do as well, for drinking, cultivating crops, producing goods, and operating our industrial processes.

But the story doesn’t end with you and your actions. It is true that, as an individual, you have an impact on global and local water quantity and quality; however, the impact of each decision is amplified by every person who makes the same choices as you. Known as the cumulative effect of water decisions, it is important to consider how decisions, either water-conscious or not, can add up to produce significant consequences for global and local watersheds. For example, imagine you cut back your coffee intake to reduce your global water footprint. By cutting out one coffee on Saturdays, you are saving about 6,760 liters each year. While this is a great step to take as an individual, what if 500 people did the same thing? Or one thousand? If one thousand people reduced their coffee intake by one cup per week, that would save the equivalent of almost three Olympic sized swimming pools worth of fresh water, each year – and this is only one thousand people and one cup of coffee! When you account for cumulative effects, the positive impact that we can have as individuals with our routine choices can be staggering.

So, how are you doing?

A quiz that looks at your every day water decisions has been designed to highlight the individual and cumulative impacts that our everyday choices can have on water quantity and quality, by taking users through a series of routine decisions and giving them an overall water stewardship score. By completing the Quiz, you will have a chance to understand how their daily activities can impact water quality and quantity, and learn about opportunities to reduce these water impacts.

To accompany the Quiz, a technical report has been completed to explore the purpose behind each question in the Quiz, explain how their inputs are translated into a final water stewardship score, and highlight key opportunities for users to reduce their water impact.

Taking the Quiz and reading the accompanying report are great first steps to learn more about our water impacts, but these are only a starting point! There are many online resources available where you can learn more about water stewardship and water in general. There are also communities and organizations you can join online and in person to learn more, share the message, and take positive actions to improve our water resources. With the Quiz as inspiration, we encourage you to seek out ways to become a better water steward!

Click here to take The Cumulative Water Decision Quiz

Did you know?

  • You should consider installing low flow toilets in your home – you can save money on your water bill and conserve water by saving 60% less water per flush – that’s almost 16,300 liters of water per year.
  • You should consider installing low flow shower heads in your home – you can save money on your water bill and conserve water by saving 60% less water per shower.
  • Taking baths can consume even more water than a 15 minute shower. A typical bath tub takes 151 liters to fill.
  • All plastics, including containers, packaging, and bags, require water to produce. Consider using reusable bags and containers instead of plastic bags and saran wrap to save even more water.  
  • A properly set up and operated drip irrigation system can save significant volumes of water; however, if a drip irrigation system is not used correctly, it can use as much water as a typical irrigation system. Be sure to install things correctly if you want to use drip irrigation.
  • Not all meats are created equal – a serving of beef requires almost three times as much water as a serving of pork, and almost four times as much as a serving of chicken. Consider substituting alternatives (including non-meat based) in place of beef to save more water.
  • Not all organizations place the same value on water stewardship – consider reviewing an organization’s environmental policies before investing or participating with them. Better yet – get in touch with someone there to let them know water is important to you and it should be important to them.
  • Household leaks can come from a variety of sources. Be sure to check your faucets (including bathtubs/showers), water heater, and toilets, and consider hiring a professional to check buried and hidden plumbing.
  • Not only does driving consume water through the use of gasoline, but vehicles can also have a local water quality impact as well, thanks to grease and oils which get left behind on the roads and washed into our sewer systems. Using alternative transportation methods can help protect both water quality and quantity.
  • Some personal products, such as body scrubs and face washes, can contain micro-beads. These small plastic bits are extremely harmful for the environment, and are too small to be removed during wastewater treatment processes. Consider buying products without micro-beads to help improve your local water quality.
  • Cooking oils and grease can solidify in plumbing and cause blockages and damage. In extreme cases, oils and fats can contribute to blockages in the sewer system that are several meters long, or larger.
  • Storm sewers on city streets typically transport water directly to natural water bodies without treatment. Consider using professional car washing services, which use less water, recycle water, and send wastewater for treatment prior to disposal, instead of washing your car at home.
  • It is in violation of the bylaws of some Albertan municipalities (e.g. Calgary) to use anything besides water to wash your car at home.
  • It can take lots of water to produce the electricity and natural gas required to light and heat your home. Consider turning off the lights when you leave the room or using a smart thermostat to turn down the heat when you’re not home to save even more water.
  • Spirits, wine, beer, and pop all consume water during production. Consider reducing your intake to save even more water.
  • Producing and transporting clothes consumes a lot of water. Next time you need a wardrobe refresh, consider donating or selling your old clothes instead of throwing them away.
  • Governmental policies at the municipal, provincial, and federal level can have an impact on water quality and quantity. Consider asking your representatives about their stance on water issues to learn more.