The University's Sustainability Plan details a goal to reduce University-wide water use 30% by 2020, from a 2006 baseline. Below is a journal entry on my water usage, an installment in my “Living the Sustainability Plan series.

Once awake, and out of bed, I brush my teeth. I make sure to keep the water off as I go, only turning on the faucet to wet and rinse my toothbrush. The whole process takes around two minutes; I do the same at night, just before bed. Eight gallons of water travel down the drain.

Once awake, I use and flush the toilet. I do this around five times each day, making sure to pull the toilet’s handle appropriately. At Harvard, you pull down for solid waste, and up for liquid waste. This practice is common in Europe, and is becoming increasingly common in the United States to minimize water usage. I wash my hands after each flush. On average, ten gallons of water total.

At night, or after a workout at the gym, I take a shower. Lathering soap, or shampoo and conditioner, or just sitting under the heat and comfort of the warmth, I spend around ten minutes under the water. Twenty-five gallons travel down the drain.

I drink one glass of water for breakfast, two for lunch, and two for dinner. In between meals, I drink about two more glasses in total throughout the day. With around 10 ounces of water per glass in the dining hall, this amounts to another 0.5 gallons of water.  

I typically do my laundry once every two weeks. I leave one load of clothes in the washing machine for around 40 minutes. With each use, another 27 gallons—much less than most washing machines.

All in all, my calculations sum to about 44 gallons of water used on most days, and 71 gallons of water used on the days that I do laundry; this equates to a rough average of around 46 gallons per day, assuming that I do laundry once every two weeks. The bulk of my consumption is in showering or laundry. For reference, the average American uses about 100 gallons of water, and his or her consumption is more heavily weighted in flushing the toilet. All in all, the US uses the majority of its water to supplement thermoelectric power, with irrigation close behind. Both irrigation and water usage per capita are heavily localized in the West, namely California, for a variety of reasons relating to climate and lifestyle.

All in all, my calculations sum to about 44 gallons of water used on most days, and 71 gallons of water used on the days that I do laundry

With “lifestyle” in mind, let’s revise my calculations. The areas I pinpointed my water usage [using the faucet, flushing the toilet, showering, drinking water, and doing laundry] are direct actions I, myself, carry out throughout the day. My dirtied dishware must be washed after moving back to the dining hall’s kitchen, and there is a great degree of uncertainty as to how those dishes are washed and how much water is required. Even with that value, several questions remain as to how to deal with that number: Were my plates washed with those of other students? If not, did I “use” the water, or did the person washing the dishes? Additionally, although I do not water any lawns or plants of my own, I surely enjoy the luxury of watered greenery throughout Harvard’s campus in the spring, summer, and fall, so the same questions are posed. Lastly, even less certain is the possibility that, while traveling to me, some water leaked in the pipes—a very real possibility, given the age of the city. These sorts of concerns illustrate the difficulty in calculating usage or consumption of any kind, as the lines between who owns what become blurred easily.

And the complexity doesn’t stop there. One article points out that the United States consumes the most water per capita, largely due to the diet of its citizens. The foods that we eat can require a shocking amount of water for production and transportation. One glass of milk requires 100 gallons of water and one pound of beef, accounting for cattle feed, can require much more than 1,000 gallons of water for production. Diets with more beef, dairy, and processed foods require the most amount of water, while those with more grains and vegetables use the least. There is also a hefty water weight to the products we use and purchase every day and our energy consumption, even, in some cases, if that energy is renewable. Water is in high demand to produce every sort of metal and plastic, and is central to many forms of electricity production because it carries heat so well.

Therefore, if we think of water conservation, in the University and out, we cannot think of simply buying more efficient toilets, showering for shorter amounts of time, and watering our lawns less frequently. Consumption and purchase of materials and energy are closely linked with our usage of water as well, but are less visible than more direct uses of water. With some appropriation, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College offers a fitting conclusion. Water, so “hidden in plain sight.”

It is about the…awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."