by Charles Redell, Sustainable Industries

2009 will bring a new wave of water conservation efforts among U.S. organizations.
Ionized air rinsers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant save water and money.

Water may be everywhere, but the growing consensus is that there’s not going to be enough to go around in the not-so-distant-future. While some companies are already viewing water as the next oil—and are starting to prepare as if the world is approaching “peak water”—2009 will bring a new wave of water conservation efforts among U.S. organizations. 

Because the cost of water is typically kept artificially low, introducing water conservation efforts tends to be an uphill battle. The impacts of climate change, the depletion of groundwater due to poor management of stormwater runoff and the continual overuse of fresh water will likely cause water to become even more scarce, according to a study released in May 2008 by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. All of this is helping the efforts of a few organizations, governments and companies that are trying to bring the idea that water is an important part of the sustainability and economic puzzles to the forefront. 

Despite a tremulous economic climate, the country’s new leadership makes 2009 the year to begin taking water conservation more seriously. It’s only been in the last couple of years that water issues have started garnering attention, mostly because no one up to this point has had to pay the real price of fresh water. 

Unlike the price of oil, another natural resource on which the global economy depends, the price of water does not value the water itself. Instead its price is determined by the cost of the infrastructure and transportation used to move water from one place to another. The average cost per 1,000 gallons of water in the United States is just $1.50, according to the American Water Works Association, a non-profit that works to improve drinking water around the world.

“They measure the stuff in acre-feet, not in barrels,” says Neal Dikeman, a partner at Jane Capital. “If energy is a commodity price that is exceedingly low, water is a small fraction of that.”

That’s all likely to change according to Jon Roberts, director of building science at CTG Energetics. “Water has been highly undervalued, but that is changing,” he said in an e-mail. “Several water utilities in Southern California are talking about 20 percent to 30 percent annual rate increases for the next five years. Moreover, the potential for water curtailments and mandatory reductions is very likely,” Roberts says.

Conversely, Roberts notes that instituting water efficiencies is inexpensive compared to most energy efficiency measures. He says “low-hanging fruit” such as repairing toilet leaks and replacing broken aerators can reduce water usage by as much as 50 percent, as can introducing climate-appropriate landscaping. He also says there is a direct relationship between water use and energy, so reducing water could reduce carbon emissions. Those reductions in turn could be sold as carbon offsets. In one case study, Roberts found that a 150-acre college campus with 1,500 students had a potential 230 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents that could be eliminated by introducing simple water efficiency measures.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which helps consumers and businesses save energy with its Energy Star-certified products, in 2007 launched Water Sense, a similar program aimed at helping people increase their water conservation. Products with the Water Sense label reportedly save businesses about 20 percent of the water that average products would use. The nearly 21-year-old Energy Star program boasts a 70 percent national awareness of the Energy Star label. But if the price of water remains where it is currently—and the idea of increasing the price of a basic human necessity such as water is a very controversial one—EPA will likely not be able to duplicate such success with the Water Sense label. 

Starting the process of reducing a company’s water usage is not simple. Generating a complete picture of how much water a company consumes means counting its direct use of water and its indirect use, says Kai Olson-Sawyer, program manager for H2O Conserve, an effort led by three environmental nonprofits with the aim of bringing water and other environmental issues to the front of the nation’s consciousness. For example, two gallons to three gallons of water go into the production and transportation of each gallon of gas, Olson-Sawyer says. The organization offers an online water footprint calculator designed to help individuals track their water use (see side bar, page 27]. 

The amount of freshwater used by industry and agriculture has to be addressed, however. About 20 percent of the contiguous United States is in moderate-to-exceptional drought, while the southeast United States is in the fourth year of extreme-to-exceptional drought conditions, according to an October 2008 report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Two states, Georgia and Tennessee, even re-ignited a long-standing border dispute in February 2008, due to the drought conditions.

Companies have an excellent reason to reduce water use, says Robin Madel, a research associate at Grace, a nonprofit involved with H2O Conserve: its relationship to energy use. “As companies become more energy conscious and start making major changes to how they use energy on site, they’re also exploring how they use water conservation as well,” Madel says.  

Ninety-five percent of California’s energy efficiency goals can be met by water efficiency programs at 58 percent of the cost, according to Mary Ann Dickinson, the former executive director of the California Urban Water Council.

While water conservation might not be at the forefront for most CEOs of U.S. corporations just yet, those with operations around the globe are already feeling the pinch. Coca-Cola Co., (NYSE: KO) is one of the world’s largest companies with a massive global reach. More than 75 percent of its unit case volume and 70 percent of its net operating revenues are generated outside of North America. Coke’s business depends on access to water, so the company has started making efforts to reduce both its energy and water use. It has been measuring and reporting on its water consumption and efficiency for its manufacturing operations since 2002. At the end of October 2008, Coca-Cola announced a goal to improve its water efficiency by 20 percent by 2012, with 2004 as its baseline year. A spokeswoman for the company says though water use will grow, achieving the goal would eliminate about 50 billion liters of its increase in 2012.

“It makes good business sense to focus on both [energy and water] because of the effect that climate change will have on water,” said Mary Kathryn Covert, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, via e-mail.

Efforts to make water issues a bigger part of the national discussion on sustainability are in their nascent stages relative to energy and carbon reduction efforts, but things are happening. The new version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards includes a mandatory 20 percent reduction of water from baseline usage. With work underway to develop a National Standard to be integrated into green building codes, such water conservation efforts have the potential to impact future building codes (see “Green building sets the code, page 13). 

In California, more stringent water use laws may be on the way. AB 2175, a bill pending in the State Senate, directs the state to reduce per capita urban water use by 20 percent by 2020, and would require agricultural water users—who account for about 80 percent of nation’s freshwater consumption, according to Sandia National Lab—to implement efficient water management practices. 

Four recent water shortages and legally mandated pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, also known as the Central Valley, have already resulted in farm losses totaling as much as $245 million through the middle of Summer 2008. This happened just one year after record farm production was reported in several counties throughout the region, according a recent report by Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute [see “Farmers save water, money,” Sustainable Industries, October 2008]. That same report outlined a number of practices and technologies farmers can implement to reduce waste due to traditional irrigation and water delivery.

 “It’s well known right now that we have an energy security issue,” says Kyle Rabin, executive director of Network for New Energy Choices, another nonprofit working with H2O Conserve. “To take on energy by itself is foolish. There are so many [energy] policy recommendations this country could pursue, that could have an adverse impact on the water resource.”

Original article.