In a state mired by drought, few behaviors are quite as important as a water-conservation-oriented lifestyle.  And few of the decisions a person can make day-to-day will have as large an impact on his water footprint than what he eats.  Why?  Because every item of food requires virtual water to be grown, processed, and produced, and delivered to your table.

Take, for example, an 8 ounce steak, which requires 3,900 liters of water.    Does that number sound immense to you?  Not when you take a look at how steaks are made.  In its lifetime, a cow will eat 2,900 pounds of corn, each of which requires 409 liters of water to produce.  That cow will also drink 24,000 liters of  water in its lifetime.  Then, you add the water used in slaughtering processes, butchering processes, and delivery, and well, it’s clear why a meat-heavy diet isn’t particularly conducive to water conservation.

…Or is it?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you could remove the footprint from just the grain the cow eats.  After all, cows didn’t evolve to eat corn and beans – they evolved to eat grass.  And a lot of states have climates that, unlike California, can support native grasses.

Even within California, grass is greener (pun intended) than corn.  Take a look at our old friend, the aqueduct, for example.  The LADWP regularly releases water along the aqueduct’s path, which irrigates the earth and helps grass to grow.  They’re not just doing it because they love greenery; these efforts help mitigate dust and offset damage that could otherwise be done through their water important efforts.

So, water is being sprayed on the ground anyway, and grass is growing anyway, so why not make the best of the situation and allow ranchers to graze their cattle on this land?  That’s exactly what the LADWP does.  80% of their land in the Owens Valley and Mono Basin is leased to ranchers, who raise grass-fed cattle. 

So we know it’s at least possible for a cow to live on a diet that’s more water friendly, so now the question becomes – how does this impact the water footprint of that theoretical steak?  While there aren’t a lot of hard numbers out there, experts agree that a grass-fed steak is massively more environmentally-friendly than a corn-fed one.

So celebrate, fellow carnivores.  It is possible to eat meat and still save water – it just takes some extra conscientious effort on your part.