Water Tight, cont.

To Label or Not to Label?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Sense program allows toilets, showerheads, and bathroom sink faucets that pass independent testing to display an official Water Sense label. The mark tells consumers the fixtures use less water than their noncertified counterparts, while delivering equally good performance.

Labeling products based on their cradle-to-grave water footprints would be problematic by comparison, says Morrison. His institute is part of the Alliance for Water Stewardship, an international coalition of environmental and sustainability groups working with public and private sector officials to develop science-based training and certification programs in water stewardship. Similar to the Forest Stewardship Council or the global Fair Trade movement, consumer products could qualify for “a good practice label and certification standard that allows companies that are good performers to differentiate themselves from others that might not be as good stewards of water resources.”

Morrison says he’s “deeply skeptical that you could actually come up with a product lev­el claim that was meaningful and scientifically defensible.” Still, one has to start somewhere. Water footprints may help companies manage their water risk in the face of increasing scarcity—but only if they have an impact on how we all manage water.

“The sheer size of the global water challenge will require all sectors of society to do their part. So consumers, citizens, will have a role to play in this,” says Morrison. “Some of it will be through their personal behavior, the way that they use water at home, but it will also be about their choices, and the way they do with their purchases and dollars.”


The average American can reduce his or her total water footprint through steps such as buying water-efficient bathroom fixtures and high-efficiency washers, putting in drought-resistant plants, and eating less meat.

Check out the Virtual Water Project’s consumer’s guide to water footprints, including an iphone app. at virtualwater.eu.


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Emily Gertz is a journalist and editor based in New York City. Currently a correspondent for OnEarth, she blogs and reports regularly on the environment, science and technology at OnEarth.org and manages online community and content. Gertz contributed several sections to the book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and is the author of the award-winning 2009 Momentum cover story, “On the Edge of the Future.”

Changing Climate, Changing Water

In North America, anticipated impacts of warming surface tem­peratures include changes in rainfall patterns, more intense but briefer rainfalls, prolonged dry spells and droughts, and increasing evaporation of water from rivers and streams.

The West, Southwest and Northwest will likely contend with reduced mountain snowpack, while the Northeast will see decreased snow cover—both leading to less freshwater from snowmelt. The West and Southwest will likely experience declining groundwater resources and lengthened dry spells or droughts.

The Midwest’s overall reliance on rainwater for much of its water sup­ply may prove a weakness as weather patterns change. Semidry areas will likely become drier, while severe droughts are expected to be more common. Changing weather patterns will render streamflows unpredictable. Irrigation-fed agriculture may wilt as demand for limited groundwater and surface water supplies intensifies.

The Great Lakes hold 84 percent of the surface freshwater in North America— a hot commodity on a continent with stressed-out supplies. But lower lake levels due to warming temperatures, as well as declines in the extent and duration of winter ice, changed streamflows, and diminished groundwater recharge in the region will make this water supply even more valuable at the same time it af­fects the region’s shipping, agricul­tural and tourism economies.

“The sheer size of the global water challenge will require all sectors of society to do their part.” —Emily Gertz

Further Reading

McIntyre’s study of water supplies
The Water Footprint Network