Personal water conservation doesn’t end with taking shorter showers, closing leaking faucets and letting the lawn go brown. Every product we consume, including the food we eat, has a “water footprint”. That is, varying amounts of fresh water are used in the lifecycle of a product, whether it’s a cow that is born eating grass and ends up as a steak, or a pair of jeans that starts in the cotton field, gets woven into denim and goes through extensive washing and dying before it ends up on the rack. From green groceries to dry goods, all our things are involved in the freshwater cycle at one point or another.

According to the Water Footprint Network, an organization that studies the water footprint of goods and services,

“The water footprint looks at both direct and indirect water use of a process, product, company or sector and includes water consumption and pollution throughout the full production cycle from the supply chain to the end-user.” 

Some researchers are now calling for a Kyoto Protocol for water. But absent an international treaty, what can individuals do to purchase less water-intensive foodstuffs and products? A few simple rules of thumb (which follow conveniently with your plan for reducing your carbon footprint):

Eat less meat (and skip the almonds too.) Beef has been singled out for its carbon intensity, and it turns out our bovine friends use a lot of water before they end up as hamburgers. Eggs and legumes are versatile, healthy and lower-water forms of protein. 

A chart of the most and least water-intensive crops.

For more information, check out this handy guide to the embodied water of common foods from the Los Angeles Times. To learn more about how these metrics are calculated, link to this related article, also from the LA Times.

Buy fewer clothes and keep them for longer. Fast fashion is a big drain on water, not to mention other environmental and labor concerns. Those obsessed with selvage denim can pat themselves on the back: no washing for a year to get that authentic worn-in look. Even H&M has launched a $1.16 million prize for new techniques to recycle clothes.

Love thy cacti. And Valley Oaks, Fescues, Sedges and Ceanothus. Climate-adapted, drought tolerant landscaping is key way to conserve water in the West. Here are Sunset Magazine’s heartiest water-wise plants.

Conserve energy. Power takes water, and we’re not strictly talking hydroelectric. It takes 13 gallons of water to bring us 1 gallon of gasoline and 5 gallons of water to bring us an hour of 60-watt electricity (according to National Geographic’s Change The Course Infographic below)

Living drier lives doesn’t have to be dull. (Think of the time you will save by not washing the car and clipping the lawn! Watch your waistline narrow as you skip the steak and fill up on lentils!) It just requires paying attention and appreciating the precious, life-giving resource we call fresh water.