January 19, 2024 - By Matt Howard and Stacy Vogel Davis, The Water Council
Net Zero for Water? It’s More Complicated Than That
As net zero emissions becomes the standard for sustainability-minded corporations worldwide, this carbon mindset is being misapplied to water as we hear more and more about “net zero water.”
But the truth is, water is more complicated than that and cannot be distilled down to an accounting exercise due to its unique traits.
In general, water is relegated to lower tiered status in corporate sustainability relative to other issues. After all, clean water is just as important to business – and life – as clean air. Even when water is addressed, it is typically approached from a management perspective, focused on broadly defined conservation goals divorced from the on-the-ground context.
Companies need to apply a true water stewardship approach. Water stewardship is commonly defined as the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that includes both site- and watershed-based actions.
For companies, this means considering how water is used within direct operations, how your water use impacts the watersheds in which you operate and how the conditions of the watershed impact your operations. It’s not just about scarcity: flooding, poor water quality, maritime supply disruptions and aging infrastructure all increase the overall water-related risk profile for businesses.
Understanding and assessing the full range of water-related impacts can be a daunting task, which may partially explain why companies avoid water stewardship action. But they do so at their peril. Problems with water quantity and quality disrupt operations and supply chains, cripple profit margins and hurt brand value. CDP reports the cost of business inaction in the face of water risk is five times greater than the cost of acting to address those risks.
So where does a company begin? Here’s what The Water Council tells our clients and partners.
Why Water is Different
Water has three factors that make it different from carbon emissions:
- Water is hyperlocal. A ton of carbon mitigated in Miami has the same long-term benefit as a ton of carbon mitigated in Mumbai. That’s not the case with water; a gallon of water saved in water-abundant Milwaukee doesn’t help water-scarce Phoenix. Yet Milwaukee faces its own water quality and stormwater management problems.
- Water is diverse. Depending on where your company operates, it could be facing issues of water scarcity, flooding or any number of water quality problems. The diversity of these challenges requires different responses that are informed by local context to be credible and impactful.
- Water is a shared resource. Every watershed bears a multitude of diverse stakeholders. Companies must involve these stakeholders as they examine their water impacts, risks and opportunities in a watershed. Not only does this lead to a better understanding of local water risks, but it also presents opportunities to act collectively toward solutions.
Never fear, there are resources available to assist your water stewardship journey. For example, organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute offer tools and other resources to help companies learn about their water risks.
Other programs such as the CEO Water Mandate allow companies to make a public commitment to water stewardship. On a more granular level, the Alliance for Water Stewardship offers a site-level certification scheme, the International Water Stewardship Standard.
At The Water Council, we saw a gap in helping companies strategically connect a corporate commitment to water stewardship with site-level water stewardship action. That’s why we introduced WAVE: Water Stewardship Verified. WAVE helps companies set enterprise-level water stewardship policy and apply that policy at the site level by prioritizing the sites and actions with the highest water impact.
Watts Water Technologies, an international water solutions company, was the first company to become WAVE-verified in 2022. Through the process, it identified eight of its 42 sites that were large water consumers and/or in regions of relatively high water risk for water stewardship action. Watts acted at the local and global level to reduce water consumption, increase reuse, improve water quality, and reduce negative impacts upstream and downstream.
For example, the company identified a facility in Fort Worth, Texas, as one of its highest water consumers. When it replaced that facility, it was able to change its processes to reduce water consumption and hazardous waste. It also engaged community stakeholders at the eight sites and will continue that dialogue as part of a watershed-based approach to water stewardship.
“It’s an evolution from looking at water use just within the four walls to looking at it with a community- and context-based perspective,” said Samantha Akella, Watts manager of global sustainability programs.
Technology is Key
As companies seek to meet ambitious water targets and goals, water stewardship actions and process improvements will need a boost from technology solutions. Water users rely on advancements in water technology to help them better monitor, use and treat water – reaching targets and goals faster, but also informing continuous improvement processes for understanding water impact, use and risk.
The Water Council works with water technology companies of all sizes worldwide to promote the water technology ecosystem. Programming such as our Tech Challenge, Pilot Program and BREW 2.0 Post-Accelerator help start-ups acquire skills, make connections and validate their technologies as they work toward market adoption.
These technologies can help companies become better water stewards. For example, Blue Triton Brands, one of our WAVE clients, works with Wellntel, Inc., a company that uses acoustic technology to continuously measure and report on groundwater supply.
BlueTriton uses Wellntel technology at four locations in the Carolinas and Florida, monitoring groundwater levels and flow at the springs from which BlueTriton sources its products.
“By continuously monitoring groundwater levels, we can monitor the health of the local environment and respond proactively to changes in water availability,” said Brandon Kienenberger, BlueTriton natural resources manager. “This enables us to implement more effective water management strategies, such as optimizing pumping practices, reviewing alternative water sources, and ensuring there is no negative impact on surrounding communities and ecosystems.”
As the only nonprofit focused on both water stewardship and water technology, The Water Council is pushing the boundaries of how we approach water challenges. Our latest initiative targets the energy-water nexus as we aim to create an economic engine addressing water and energy resiliency and sustainability for manufacturers and utilities.
We are developing this engine in our home state of Wisconsin through a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program, meant to advance critical technologies and spur regional innovation and talent that can be applied to global challenges. Our goal is to facilitate the solutions needed for manufacturers and utilities to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change through water and energy innovation.
We are in the early stages as we coalesce local resources, including Wisconsin’s strong manufacturing base, water technology cluster, energy solutions companies and research universities. Check out our website to follow our progress and find out how you can get involved.
These are just some examples of our work in water and how it touches the business community. Whether you’re in a water-scarce area such as Las Vegas or a water-abundant area like Chicago, water is something your company needs to start addressing now. The Water Council can help wherever you are in your water stewardship journey. Don’t wait until the problem is at your door, because by then it could be too late.
The Water Council will present a Spotlight Session, "Thriving in a Water-Stressed World" at the upcoming Net Zero Forum, February 26-28, 2024 at The Woodlands, Texas.
The Water Council (TWC) is a global hub dedicated to solving critical water challenges by driving innovation in freshwater technology and advancing water stewardship. Built on more than a century of innovation, TWC has coalesced one of the most concentrated and mature water technology clusters in the world from its headquarters at the Global Water Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Recognizing the need for smarter and more sustainable use of water worldwide, TWC also promotes water stewardship as a natural complement to water innovation in the effort to preserve freshwater resources in the Midwest and around the world. Today, The Water Council has established itself as a global leader in the water industry and one of America’s premier economic development clusters as recognized by government agencies, Brookings and the Harvard Business School.
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