Last year, facing a drought of historic proportions, Gov. Jerry Brown called on California residents and businesses to restrict our water usage. It was a directive that predictably generated national media attention, while also stirring up much debate within the state about water usage. Every analysis and study on California’s drought finds animal agriculture to be the state’s biggest water user. Amidst a wet winter in which we received a decent rainfall, it’s easy to forget that we’re still amidst a severe drought.

“As California goes, so goes the nation,” so goes the saying.  And in our state, Santa Monica’s a real trailblazer. Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment has been the nation’s leader in its promotion of Meatless Monday, which it’s been doing for years. This March, Santa Monica’s also encouraging employees to walk the walk by taking a Meatless in March challenge. It’s a brilliant challenge that can truly make a difference. One thing each and every one of us can do to reduce our water footprint is to reduce the amount of meat we put on our plates.

Animal agriculture is water intensive. National Geographic estimates that it takes approximately 468 gallons of water to produce a single pound of chicken- that’s more than a month’s worth of showers.   A 2012 report from the Pacific Institute implicates animal feed as having the greatest water requirement of any crop in California (or any other human use for that matter).

There’s an abundance of science indicating that not only is the amount of meat, eggs and dairy our society is consuming too heavy a burden for our planet and water supply, but reducing meat consumption could also help reduce the risk of chronic disease. A diet rich in plant-based foods will help us look and feel better. The American Heart Association reports, “A pro-vegetarian diet that emphasizes a higher proportion of plant-based foods compared to animal-based foods may help lower the risks of dying from heart disease and stroke by up to 20 percent.” Heart disease is the top killer of American men and women.

When we choose kung pao vegetables over chicken stir-fry, we support water conservation efforts, improve our health and reduce the number of animals subjected to inhumane factory farm practices, such as confining animals in cages and crates so small they can barely take a step in any direction. We can each do our part by embracing the Three Rs: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.

Fortunately, more California municipalities are recognizing that this small change can make a big difference. Santa Monica is joined by Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, Escondido, Long Beach and Santa Cruz, which have all passed resolutions or proclamations declaring Mondays to be Meatless Mondays. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District recently kicked off Meatless Monday serving vegetarian meals to students at the start of each week.

Doing our part individually to address the drought may seem like a drop in the bucket, but each day we have three opportunities to save water, improve our health and help animals: at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We can all join the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment to help fill that bucket by enjoying more meatless meals.

Kristie Middleton is the senior food policy director for The Humane Society of the United States.

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