At  21 years old, I felt blindsided when I first learned about the water footprint of meat.

As I was growing up, speakers dispatched to schools by Denver Water encouraged my classmates and me to take shorter showers and shut off the tap while brushing our teeth to save water.

Meanwhile, producing a single hamburger takes 660 gallons of water. This is as much water as taking a 4½ hour shower, or leaving the faucet running while brushing your teeth for almost an entire year.

A single hamburger. No one ever mentioned that.

It turns out that most of our water usage does not actually occur in homes. On average, about 70% of U.S. freshwater use goes into growing and producing our food.

So, simple dietary shifts can make a huge difference in how much water we use, especially at a population-wide scale. In particular, reducing the amount of animal products we consume would drastically reduce the amount of water we’re using.

While any plant-based food still requires water to produce, the inefficiency of animal products is staggering: compared to the 660 gallons of water required for a hamburger, an Impossible plant-based burger patty only uses about four gallons, and a Beyond plant-based burger patty only uses about one gallon.

These meatless alternatives have drastically lower carbon footprints and environmental impacts as well, while providing nearly the same amount of protein per bite.

But why do meat and dairy require so much more water to produce than plant-based foods? The water going into producing a hamburger isn’t just the water a cow needs to drink. Most of meat’s water footprint is actually from water needed to grow livestock feed.

This introduces an unavoidable inefficiency in water use on our plates.

To paint the water picture for beef: more than 80% of cows spend much of their lives in feedlots, where they rely on irrigated feed crops mainly grown in the American plains and the West — regions facing increasingly severe droughts and water scarcity due to climate change. Amid the exceptional drought conditions of the Colorado River Basin (glaringly apparent by the record low levels of Lake Mead), we’re seeing restrictions being placed on residential water use. All the while, about  80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin is actually used for agriculture—with about half being used directly for cattle feed crops like alfalfa and hay.

This rate of water use is increasingly unsustainable. At the current rate of water consumption across the Colorado River Basin, Lake Mead could drop down to a ‘dead pool’ level within a few years — a level so low that water will no longer flow to Arizona or California. Lake Powell is only a few dozen feet away from dropping so low that the Glen Canyon Dam will no longer generate electricity to 300,000 homes from Nevada to Colorado. Between the worsening droughts and continued overuse of water resources for agriculture and meat production, the time for change is now.

I wish I could have learned about that earlier back in my elementary school water lessons. 

Movements toward more drought-resilient diets are gaining traction. The Denver Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Council has adopted DefaultVeg, implementing plant-based defaults wherever food is served rather than more water-intensive options like beef. Gov. Jared Polis declared March 20th as “MeatOut Day” to raise awareness of the environmental and health benefits of plant-forward diets.

We can no longer overlook the water impact of the food on our plates. If we want to empower younger generations with the tools they need to build a more sustainable, climate-resilient society, we need to start by teaching them about the water footprint of food in schools.

Ellie Fajer, of Littleton, is a senior at Stanford University.

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Ellie Fajer

Ellie Fajer, of Littleton, is a senior at Stanford University.