“It’s not just about Californians cutting back on lawn watering and taking shorter showers, because California’s drought is America’s drought. Cutting back on the food that we waste, much of which is grown in California using scarce water resources, is just one way that we can all make a difference.”

                                                                              – Peter Hanlon


World Water Day

While El Niño has made a dent in California’s drought, the water crisis is not over. California is not alone; water is a scarce resource around the globe. Look for a lot of information about water issues on Tuesday, March 22nd, which is World Water Day (#WorldWaterDay). World Water Day is an international observance that focuses on water education. Now in its 13th year, the engagement campaign is coordinated by the United Nation’s water entity: UN-Water. This year’s theme is “Better water, better jobs.


The Water Footprint Calculator 

One of the tools we’ve used to assess our water use is the Water Footprint Calculator, developed by the water and energy team at GRACE Communications Foundation. GRACE works to increase public awareness around significant environmental and public health issues. The organization also publishes the popular Ecocentric blog.


About Peter Hanlon

An individual who was instrumental in developing the Water Footprint Calculator is Peter Hanlon. He is the deputy director of programs for the GRACE Communications Foundation. Peter’s work focuses on issues at the nexus of food, water and energy.

Peter Hanlon. Credit: GRACE Communications Foundation.
Peter Hanlon. Credit: GRACE Communications Foundation.

Peter’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Civil Eats, Grist, Forbes, AlterNet and EcoWatch. Prior to joining GRACE, he worked on coastal policy, watershed management, land use planning and public outreach at the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

In honor of #WorldWaterDay, Peter generously agreed to answer a few questions for the UC Food Observer.



Q: What are some simple – but perhaps overlooked – ways in which consumers can more effectively conserve water? 

Peter: To effectively conserve water use you should:

Consider your diet, which accounts for at least two-thirds of your water footprint. Cut back on processed foods. Eat less meat, but better meat; lean toward pasture-raised instead of industrially produced. Always try to avoid wasting food, because when you throw food away you’re also throwing away the gallons upon gallons of water it took to produce it.

Around the house: About a third of your indoor water use goes to toilets. If you can’t switch to a low-flow toilet right now, you could put a plastic bottle filled with water in your toilet tank to reduce the amount of water used per flush. The easiest way of all, no matter what kind of toilet you have, is to try the old cliché: If it’s yellow, let it mellow.

When it comes to outdoor water use, it’s time to think beyond grass. If you allow your lawn to brown during water shortages, it can recover even after several weeks. However, in a long-term drought, that might not be palatable. Consider switching to native, drought-tolerant plants. They’re easier to maintain and require much less water.


Q:  What is “hidden water”? How can consumers become more aware of this issue?

Peter: Hidden water (sometimes called “virtual water”) is the water used to produce the food we eat, the energy we use and the things we buy. You don’t ever see or touch this water. For example, it takes 42 gallons to make a slice of pizza – that’s more water than in your typical bath – but you’ll obviously never see that water as you chow down.

For consumers who want to find out how much hidden water they’re using, they can start by assessing their consumption by using our Water Footprint Calculator. It can be an eye-opening experience, because once they add up the water associated with things like diet, driving habits and how much they like to shop, most people are using nearly 2,000 gallons per day. In fact, the majority of the typical user’s water footprint is comprised of hidden or virtual water.


Q: Any tips on how parents might help children become careful water consumers? 

Peter: We often hear that it works the other way – children come home from school after learning about water and point out ways that their parents are being wasteful! But there’s no question that home is the best place for kids to learn how to be more water-wise. Start with these simple steps:

  • Shutting off the water while brushing teeth.
  • Only running the dishwasher when it’s full.
  • Make a fun research project by looking for leaks, which can be a big source of water waste at home. Put a little bit of food dye in the tank of your toilet, for example, and wait about five minutes. If you see the dye in the bowl, then you have a leak. The good news is that typically requires just a simple fix.



Q: Any comments on the continuing California drought? 

Peter: El Niño has brought some relief, but I think it’s fair to say that the annual rainfall that Californians understood as normal over the past hundred years or so is shifting, and we all need to shift along with it – and I really do mean all of us across the country.

It’s not just about Californians cutting back on lawn watering and taking shorter showers, because California’s drought is America’s drought. Cutting back on the food that we waste, much of which is grown in California using scarce water resources, is just one way that we can all make a difference.



Q: What are your hopes for World Water Day?

Peter: A couple of things really stand out. First, the theme of this year’s World Water Day is jobs, so we hope that kids and students have more opportunity to learn about the importance of water. We hope they’ll be inspired to pursue a career that helps to protect the world’s water resources, whether as engineers, managers, advocates or any number of other ways.

Second, we need more data about water. In the supposed age of “big data” the amount of information collected about our water resources and how they’re used is pathetic. This is a well-known gap to researchers around the world, so we hope that this is the year we see more innovation and collaboration in gathering data to help address many different water challenges, from pollution to equitable access to competing demands.




Q&A: Doug Parker, UC ANR/California Water Institute

UC’s Faith Kearns on the art and science of waiting for rain during a drought