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Taking Account of Water

Note: Teacher’s notes are in red

“Taking Account of Water”

Students will be able to see how often and how much they use water, and understand the importance of water conservation. This is an ideal activity to involve families in Geography Awareness Week.

Your Mission

Become a water meter reader!

Most people use way more water than they need! How about you? You’re about to find out.

Subjects: Geography, Science

Relevant U.S. National Geography Standards: 1, 14, 16


  • 13 one-gallon (3.8-liter) jugs (Ask students to bring in empty milk or juice containers.)

  • One “How I Use Water” tally sheet for each student

    To make a “How I Use Water” tally sheet, list the following activities on the left side of an 8.5-by-11-inch (22-by-28-centimeter) sheet of paper. (Make layout horizontal.) Leave room for students to make tic marks to the right of each activity and to calculate the amount of water used. (Do not include estimates on the tally sheet.) Photocopy one sheet for each student.

    “How I Use Water”
    Washing hands
    Brushing teeth
    Flushing toilet
    Laundry (number of loads)
    Taking a bath
    Washing car
    Washing dishes (by hand, with water running)
    Washing dishes (by machine)
    Watering lawn (number of minutes)
    (Add 0.5 gallon [1.9 liters] of water taken in through food and drink for the day.)
  • Water Use in the U.S.

    The average person in the United States uses about 100 gallons (379 liters) of water a day for drinking, bathing, cooking, washing, swimming, watering gardens, and such. And the water each of us uses directly is only a start, because water is essential in producing the food we eat and the products we use and in the maintenance of our different modes of transportation.

    Like all other living things, human beings are made up largely of water. Every day we must take in about half a gallon (1.9 liters) of water simply to stay healthy. For most people in the United States, access to clean, fresh water is no problem. We turn on the tap in our homes and out pours a seemingly unlimited supply. So why in the world would it be important to conserve water?

    Water Use Around the World

    Two-thirds of the people in the world use less than 13 gallons (49 liters) of water a day. To illustrate this quantity, fill the 13 jugs with water and display them in class. Ask students how many gallon (liter) jugs they would have to fill to supply their own needs for a day. Record all of their estimates.

    While many of the industrialized nations of the world are rich in fresh water, much of the developing world is water-poor. Many people in the developing world must walk long distances to the nearest water source; some spend the better part of their lives fetching and carrying water to their homes. Water may be considered too important to use on things such as flower gardens and fountains—or even for such basic activities as washing hands.

    After students have estimated their own water needs for one day, introduce them to many of the ways water is used on a large-scale basis.

    If students can access the Internet, quiz them at “Water Science for Schools.” Try the Challenge Questions in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Activity Center at ( Or go to the site’s home page ( for dozens of interactive questionnaires and games, plus lots of information about water.

    If students can’t access the Internet, go to the “Water Science for Schools” home page on the U.S. Geological Survey’s site ( to print out quizzes or water facts illustrated with maps, diagrams, and drawings.

    Counting on Water Every Day

    Give a “How I Use Water” tally sheet to each student. Tell students that over the course of the next 24 hours they should make a record of each time they use water. (Students could tally usage over a weekend, when they’re more likely to wash the car or water the lawn, and average their water use over a 48-hour period.)

    “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote. You’re going to “count the ways” of your involvement with another “deep” subject—water. You’ll record every time you use this resource from the time you get up in the morning till the time you go to bed, whether it’s washing your hair or washing the family car.

    Ready to count the ways? Grab your pencil and plunge in.

    Counting on Water a Bit Too Much?

    After students have completed their tally sheets, have them use the estimates below to compute the number of gallons of water they each used during the course of the 24 hours. (Do not include these estimates on students’ tally sheets.)

    Amount of water used
    (Quantities given are estimates)

    Washing hands: .25 gallons (.95 liter)
    Brushing teeth: 1 gallon (3.8 liters)
    Flushing toilet: 5 gallons (19 liters)
    Laundry: 30 gallons (114 liters) (per load)
    Showering: 30 gallons (114 liters)
    Taking a bath: 40 gallons (151 liters)
    Washing car: 20 gallons (76 liters)
    Washing dishes (by hand, with water running): 10 gallons (38 liters)
    Washing dishes (by machine): 15 gallons (57 liters)
    Watering lawn: 240 gallons (908 liters) (30 minutes)

    (Add 0.5 gallon [1.9 liters] of water taken in through food and drink for the day.)

    It’s time for an accounting of your water usage. After you have recorded the times you use water, your teacher will give you the approximate amounts of water each activity requires. Use this information to tally up your total water usage.

    You may be surprised at how many gallons (liters) you used in one day. But if you’re like most people in the United States, you used about ____ gallons (liters) of water in a 24-hour period. (Do you know the answer to that question?)

    The average person in the U.S. uses about 100 gallons (379 liters) of water a day, and the average person in a developing country uses 13 gallons (49 liters) a day. How do the quantities students used compare with 13 gallons (49 liters)? Ask students to explain the discrepancies.

    Pick up a one-gallon (3.8-liter) container of water. It’s pretty heavy. If you had to carry the amount of water you used in 24 hours for one mile (1.6 kilometers), or farther, would you plan to use less water?

    At the end of the activity, have the class decide how to use the 13 gallons (49 liters) of water wisely. Suggest using the water on school grounds, but as far as possible from the building. Have students carry the water to the site(s).

    Water Conservation? Count Me In!

    Suggest that students go online (see Other Related Web Sites) to find ways they and their families could conserve water. If students can’t access the Internet, you can print out ideas for saving water from several sites. Ask students to use the suggestions to make water conservation plans with their families. Have students present the plans to the class, so they can learn from each other about ways to conserve water.

    Show your family the results of one day’s water usage. If you think your family could lower its water consumption, write a “Water Conservation Plan.” The plan should list the steps you and your family will take to reduce the amount of water you use on a daily basis.

    Every time you conserve water, it adds up!

    If you want to lead students in a community service project, find out about the Give Water a Hand program at the University of Wisconsin Environmental Resources Center ( Through this national watershed education program, students plan and complete a project to protect or improve water resources.

    Adapted from the 1993 Geography Awareness Week teacher’s handbook. Copyright © 1993 National Geographic Society.


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