How Do We Use Water and Why Conserve?

Ways We Use Water and Why We Should Work to Conserve More

Woman washing dishes in kitchen, mid section, elevated view
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The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water at home daily, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. If that seems like a really high number, let's first consider how water is used in our every day lives.

To start, we all use water for drinking, washing, cleaning, cooking, and growing food — making it our most precious resource for survival. What adds to that daily household water use, is that even more water is used by industry to generate electricity, manufacture products, and transport people and goods.

The Specifics: How Do We Use Water?

All of the water that we use comes from local lakes, rivers, streams or underground aquifers, depending on your city and state. How we use the water depends on the purpose at hand, such as:

Household Uses. Common household uses consume a lot of water . It may take between 30 and 40 gallons for one bath while the average toilet uses about 5 gallons of water per flush. Other estimated household use averages in America include:

  • Approximately 20-40 gallons of water for one shower.
  • Washing machines use an average of 25 gallons per load.
  • The kitchen sink takes roughly 20 gallons per day for preparing food and washing dishes.
  • The bathroom sink, used for washing hands, shaving and brushing teeth, requires about 15 gallons per day.

Much of our freshwater resources are also used for watering lawns, flower beds, and vegetable gardens, as well as washing cars and filling swimming pools.

(It should be noted that many people use chemicals on lawns and gardens before watering with freshwater resources. This practice washes the chemicals off of plants into storm drains and straight into rivers and streams where fish make their homes. This kind of polluted water can kill fish and wildlife.)

Communities. Cities use water for fire fighting, street cleaning, and watering public areas such as parks, grass, trees, shrubs, and flowers. Water is also used to fill public drinking fountains, including those at schools and libraries. All of the different businesses in your community also use large amounts of water.

Think about all the water that is used by restaurants, hospitals, laundries, dry cleaners, golf courses, hotels, car washes, beauty shops, barber shops, gas stations, and health clubs as well as all of the other businesses in town. These all add up to quite a big demand on local water supplies.

Farming. The amount of water needed to run a farm is tremendous. When we think of water on a farm, we think of watering crops; but the amount of water needed on a dairy farm is just as large. Chickens, pigs, sheep, and all the other animals in a farmyard need drinking water to stay alive. Food must be grown for them to eat, and water is also required in the cooling systems used to keep production of meat fresh.

Vegetable and grain crops also require water. Water is used in spreading fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which produce a greater crop yield (which also contaminates the water). Most of the water used on farms is used for irrigation. Studies show that by using drip irrigation, farmers can conserve up to 60% of the water that it would normally take to irrigate their crops using other systems of irrigation.

It takes about 26 gallons of water to produce one ear of corn while it takes about 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Around 120 gallons of water is required to produce one egg. About 300 gallons of water is needed to produce one loaf of bread, and it takes about 12,000 gallons of water to grow a bushel of wheat. Believe it or not, about 1,400 gallons of water are used during the final production of one fast-food meal including a burger, fries, and a soft drink.

Generating Electricity. Hydroelectric plants capture the kinetic energy of falling water to make electricity and are the largest users of water. This is done with a dam that forces the water level to go up so that the water will have more power when falling. The force of the falling water pressing against the turbines' blades cause them to spin. The spinning turbines transmit the kinetic energy of the falling water to generators. The generators spin when the turbines spin generating electricity that will be transmitted on the power lines to homes and businesses.

Of all the electricity in the world, about 20% is generated by hydropower. About 10% of all the electricity in the United States is provided by hydropower. Hydropower generating prevents a lot of pollution. Hydropower generating is clean and does not leave any waste. Because of the electricity generated by hydropower, the amount of oil and coal needed to produce enough electricity is reduced. It prevents the need to burn about 22 billion gallons of oil or 120 million tons of coal each year. The amount of electricity that a hydroelectric plant produces depends on two things: how far the water falls and the quantity of water falling. The higher the dam, the further the water falls and the more electric power produced. If the water falls twice as far, there will be twice as much electricity generated. The quantity of water that falls also affects the amount of power produced. The more water that flows through the turbines making them spin, the more electric power is produced.

Industry. Water is also essential in industry as it is heated and the steam is used to run machinery. Water is used to cool hot metal such as in the production of steel.

Water is also an important element in many products like chemicals, drugs, lotions, shampoos, cosmetics, cleaners, and also beverages. Water is used in processing food and in innumerable factories and industrial processes including the manufacturing of paper. Water used in processing foods and beverages must be absolutely clean, while other industries such as a manufacturing plant may use a lower quality of water.

Recreation and Transportation. Many people enjoy fishing, boating, sailing, canoeing, rafting, and swimming, as well as many other recreational activities that depend on water.

Many people also use boats and ferries to commute to and from work every day while others enjoy going on cruise ships or just going sailing.

Why Conserving Water is Important

"In the early 1900s, American industry used about 10 to 15 billion gallons of water a day. With the huge growth in industry following World War II, the industrial use of water also grew. By 1980, industry was using about 150-200 billion gallons each day." - Water: A Resource in Crisis by Eileen Lucas.

The Earth might have many bodies of water, but the fact is that less than 1% of the water on earth is fit for all of the uses listed above. The remaining 99% is found in oceans (which is salt water and not suitable for our uses), frozen in the polar ice caps, or too difficult to reach for practical use by cities or communities.

Even though our need for freshwater sources are continuously increasing (due to population growth and industry), the supply of that water stays constant. This is because although the water cycle eventually returns water to Earth, it's not always returned to the same spot, or in the same quantity and quality. Failing to conserve water can eventually lead to a lack of an adequate, healthy water supply, which can have drastic consequences in rising costs, reduced food supplies, health hazards and political conflict.

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