Assessment of California’s Water Footprint

Published: December 11, 2012
Authors: Julian Fulton, Heather Cooley, Peter Gleick
Pages: 53

The Pacific Institute has released the first comprehensive assessment of California’s water footprint, providing an important perspective on the interconnections between everyday activities and impacts to water resources – both at home and around the world.

The new report, California’s Water Footprint, analyzes the state’s water footprint – that is the amount of water required to produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the beverages we drink, and the other goods on which we rely. The water footprint of the average Californian is 1,500 gallons per day, slightly less than the average American but considerably more than the average resident in other developed countries or in the rest of the world.


The 2014 report, Water Footprint Outcomes and Policy Relevance Change with Scale Considered: Evidence from California, sheds new light on sustainable use and, in California, is being considered with a suite of sustainability indicators for long-term state water planning. Key to this integration has been grounding the method in local data and highlighting the unique characteristics of California’s water footprint, presented here.

California’s total water footprint is an estimated 64 million acre-feet of water. That’s more than double the amount of water that flows down both of the state’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, in an average year. An estimated 38 million acre-feet of water is used to produce goods and services within California. Half of that water is used for goods that are then exported and consumed outside the state. The remainder – about 19 million acre-feet of water – is used to produce goods that are consumed in California. An additional 44 million acre-feet of water is required to produce the goods and services that are imported into California and consumed here, making California a net importer of virtual water.

“As pressures on water resources intensify, evaluating our impact on the world’s water resources becomes increasingly important; the water footprint is one way to quantify this impact,” said Julian Fulton, lead author of the report. “Most of California’s water footprint is external, meaning that Californians are more dependent on water resources from other places than in-state.”

More than 90% of California’s water footprint is associated with agricultural products: meat and dairy products have especially large water footprints due to the water-intensive feed required to raise the animals. An additional 4% of the state’s water footprint is associated with direct household water consumption (primarily for watering lawns and gardens), and the remaining 3% with other industrial products we consume, such as clothing and electronics.

“Evaluating the water footprint can be valuable for water managers, policymakers, and for concerned members of the public,” said Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute Water Program. “It can highlight new leverage points for reducing water impacts and creating a more sustainable society – for example, with policies that consider the environmental implications of various trade regimes, or educational programs to help individuals and institutions make better decisions about their consumption habits. It can also help companies evaluate their vulnerability to water resource concerns throughout their supply chain. Ongoing water footprint work will provide more contextualized information for citizens, businesses, government, and other stakeholders in California’s water future.”

Download the report.

Download the Executive Summary.

Read the press release.