Virtual Water as a Metric for Institutional Sustainability

University of Virginia

Publication Release Date: Aug. 1, 2017
Date Posted: May 14, 2018
Submitted by: Jade Chalkley
Sustainability Topic: Water
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
Periodical Name: Sustainability: The Journal of Record
Type: Journal Article


Carbon and nitrogen footprints are increasingly common metrics used to consider the environmental impacts of activities and consumption by institutions; an institutional water footprint complements these assessments by providing a third metric: water use. This study calculated the water footprint of the University of Virginia (UVA) as a summation of direct water use and virtual water use. The latter was estimated using purchasing records for utilities, food, transportation, paper, research animals, and hospital purchases for calendar year 2014. The direct water use portion of the footprint was 1.7 million m3 water. The virtual water footprint was 15.2 million m3. The utilities sector is responsible for 46 percent of UVA's total water footprint, and food production 23 percent. The UVA Health System contributed 17 percent, and paper, transportation, and research animals each constituted less than 3 percent of the total footprint. The most water-intensive inputs were biofuels, hydroelectricity, and animal products. This water footprint assessment supports carbon and nitrogen footprint-reduction strategies, such as replacing coal with natural gas and reducing beef consumption. Water footprints also require explicitly considering the impacts of renewable energy sources, such as biofuels or hydropower. The water footprint of the University of Virginia provides an additional measure to address the environmental implications of the institution's resource demands and this approach is broadly applicable to other institutions.