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Melissa Gutwein: Decreasing our water footprint

Jan. 25, 2017

Melissa Gutwein is an Honors College senior from Lafayette, Indiana who is majoring in special education

We hear it all the time: Save water! Ever since elementary school we have been encouraged to turn off the water while we brush our teeth and to take shorter showers. But are these the most effective ways to conserve water? And in a state surrounded by lakes, why are we trying to save water in the first place?

ISE 301 is a course taken by elementary and special education majors like me designed to prepare the students to be excellent science teachers. We are encouraged to think like children and to get to the heart of fundamental questions about our world. Most recently, we studied questions relating to water.

We investigated our own water use at home by measuring how much water various appliances used, such as our dishwasher, laundry machine and shower. Then we used the National Geographic water footprint calculator to discover how much water we use indirectly. This included the water used in food production, consumer products and energy. The results were fascinating — indirect water use was often more than 10 times greater than direct water use!

This finding led us to the next question: How can we effectively decrease our water footprint? While we have always been told to take shorter showers, it became clear that decreasing only our direct water footprint would not have nearly as big an impact as decreasing our indirect water footprint.

Students began to research what lifestyle changes they could make in order to decrease their overall water footprint, and many decided to eat less meat. Of all food produced, meat has by far the greatest water footprint. Just one pound of beef requires nearly two thousand gallons of water to produce! Many students showed significant decreases in their water footprint simply by refraining from eating meat just one day per week.

Still weighing on everyone’s minds was one final question: Why should we decrease our water footprint in the first place? First, we remember that less than one percent of all water on earth is available for humans to use! In addition, water is not evenly distributed across the planet. Therefore, it is important that we are conscious of our water usage and work to reduce it in order to ensure that there is enough water to go around.

If you get a chance, take a moment to observe the new displays hanging throughout the first floor hallway of North Kedzie. A variety of ways to decrease water use are presented, along with cutout water droplets representing how much water each action saves over a year. While many of us are sure to turn off the water while we brush our teeth, the display makes it clear that a much more effective action is to decrease meat consumption or to avoid highly processed foods. As future educators, this project has inspired methods of inquiry and investigation that we hope to foster in our own students.