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Topic for the water cooler: Protecting our H20 supply

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Almost two-thirds of U.S. states face a water shortage by 2013. Is your company prepared for the potential business impact?

When it comes to things your sustainability team should be worried about -- for both altruistic and self-interested reasons -- water is right up there. That's because if you ignore its scarcity, your business may pay a price in terms of increased production costs or, perhaps, its ability to create and make certain products. You're going to hear a lot about over the next week, because it is, after all, World Water Week, a conference and forum organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

As I've reported previously, PepsiCo has been a leader in reporting on its water stewardship activities. In fact, the company has released its first report on this topic, "Water Stewardship: Good for Business. Good for Society." Among other things, the giant beverage company says it saved 12 billion liters of water last year through its efforts. Its goal is to improve its water intensity by 20 percent by 2015, compared with its 2006 practices. So far, it has achieve a 15 percent improvement.

The reasons that water interests are becoming more urgent are myriad. The impact of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate is changing what we can expect in terms of water supply. Certain parts of the United States are unusually dry this year, which may or may not be just part of regular weather cycle. The other scary thing is that some of the clean energy alternatives that we're testing all over the United States, including biodiesel and ethanol, require more water to produce. (Apparently wind and solar are exempt.)  But whatever your stand is on the theory of climate change, here are two statements you would find it hard to refute.

  1. Certain parts of the world don't have an adequate freshwater to support their growing populations, let alone economic development.
  2. Closer to home, two-thirds of the U.S. states are predicted to face water shortages by 2013. And that's not some research firm cooking up a number, that's a projection from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

There's a comprehensive new book out about the topic, "Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource." The book poses the question, "Water or oil: Which is more essential in power our society?" It explores all the ways that we take water for granted all over the world. Did you know, for example, that it takes 53 gallons of water to produce one glass of milk? Or 634 gallons to create an 8-ounce steak? The book's authors (Peter Rogers, a water expert and professor from Harvard University, and Susan Leal, past manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and now a consultant and Harvard fellow) calculate that the average per-person water footprint for someone living in the United States is approximately 1,800 gallons. Fortunately, the book doesn't just describe the crisis, it offers ideas for how we can use technology to recycle water and focuses on how technology is being used to help better manage agricultural water uses.

"This country is moving into a phase where the conservation of water is becoming an urgent priority," says Mike Tracy, vice president of North American Water for smart grid technology company Sensus. That's one reason you're seeing companies like Sensus focus their sales efforts on water utilities. Tracy says that many water utilities can't account for at least some of their water supply; in some cases, they are unable to accurately trace between 20 percent and 50 percent of the water in their systems, he says. "Most water utilities don't know there is a leak until there is a big hole in the ground," he says.

To date, Sensus has deployed something like 8 million smart endpoints across the United States. Not all of those endpoints are focused on water, but Sensus figures it has saved more than 600 trillion gallons of water to date. One example of a city using its technology is Gahanna, Ohio, which is using the Sensus FlexNet technology to thwart leaks.

Sensus is one of the more visible smart grid companies focusing explicitly on water. Two others you should watch carefully are IBM and ITT, both of which have some news out this week related to water:

  • ITT, which is big into water and fluid management technologies, has added $10.5 million in funding to its ITT Watermark program, which is aligned with Water for People, Mercy Corps and China Women's Development Foundation in an effort to help provide more than 1 million people with access to safe water and sanitation by 2013. ITT pledged $4 million in the first phase of the program, which focused on 300 schools in Guatemala, Honduras, India and China.
  • IBM has launched several initiatives this week, including a new Web site called Rivers for Tomorrow along with the Nature Conservancy three new research projects through the World Community Grid. Those projects, outlined in the video, will study the following: water filtering in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a filtration and desalination project at the Tsinghua University Centre for Multidisciplinary Mechanics in China, and research on water-borne diseases in Brazil.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure