The United States is one of the world's biggest users of water -- many Americans use as much water as approximately 900 Kenyans. As a result, water resources in the U.S. are shrinking. The country has faced five years of shortages; in 2012, the U.S. had the worst drought in 25 years. Thirty-six states already expect water shortages this year, even without drought. Illinois is no exception. According to the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's report to the Senate Agriculture Committee in February, conditions are right for a repeat of last year's record drought.
The 2012 drought had terrible consequences on the state's agricultural industry, and as a result Chicago-area residents are now facing higher food prices. The Illinois office of the National Agriculture Statistics Service reported that the state corn yield for 2012 was the lowest recorded since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans will need to spend an extra $615 on groceries this year due to nationwide drought-related crop difficulties.
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In January, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the water levels in Lake Michigan were the lowest ever recorded at 17 inches -- only 6 inches less and it could have re-reversed the flow of the Chicago River. This would cause not only stalled boat traffic but stagnant waters in the heart of the city and the possibility of untreated wastewater from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District treatment plants flowing back into Lake Michigan. The lake is the source of drinking water for 77 percent of residents in northern Illinois, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But consumers can profoundly reduce water consumption through their food choices. Recent research from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition shows that a healthy diet and environmentally sustainable diet go hand in hand. Here are four steps to save water in the Chicago area:
• Eat less meat. A weekly menu rich in vegetables with meat in moderation could save 2,500 liters of water a day! Choosing grass-fed and locally raised meat, eggs and dairy products also saves water.
• Support small-scale family farms. Subsidies disproportionately support large-scale agribusiness over small-scale producers, who tend to practice more sustainable farming. Big Ag is less challenged by drought or price fluctuations than small and medium-scale farms, but changing support services could help even things out and improve food and water security.
• Streamline water use in home gardens. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that up to 40 percent of all household water goes to watering lawns and gardens. Growing native plants can help save water because they are adapted the Midwest's climate. The city of Chicago's Sustainable Backyards program offers rebates for the purchase of native plants such as purple corn flower and little bluestem in addition to rain barrels. Irrigating with rain barrels can save up to 1,300 gallons per year.
• Reduce food and water waste. The NRDC estimates that America wastes 34 billion tons of food and consequently 25 percent of freshwater each year. This is mostly due to overpurchasing, food spoilage and plate waste. This waste can cost a family of four between $1,350 and $2,275 each year. Learn about your food's shelf life and freezer storage times. Buy only what you plan to eat, and use leftovers to create new meals.
Many residents of Chicago and the suburbs are already rallying to conserve water. On this day, World Water Day, it's more important than ever that all Americans keep working to save every drop.
• Danielle Nierenberg is a food and agriculture expert and co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org).