Business of Water Forum One Step Toward Conservation

Last month some of the nation’s preeminent experts on – and some of the largest corporate users of – the Colorado River’s fresh water gathered in Denver for the first annual Business of Water summit, called a Corporate Leaders Summit on Water and the Economy.

Representatives ranging from marinas and National Park concessionaires, to MGM in Las Vegas, politicians, media, to rafting and fly fishing outfitters and breweries were on hand to share facts, concerns and success stories. All were brought together by nonprofit Protect the Flows, a coalition of approximately 1,000 businesses focused on the issue of water sustainability and water consumption policies, particularly the issue of a healthy and flowing Colorado River system. Craig Mackey, Protect the Flows co-director, facilitated the two-day conference.

According to Protect the Flows, the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwest, supplying drinking water to 40 million people; irrigating nearly four million acres of land, which grow 15 percent of the nation’s crops, and fuels a $26 billion recreation economy that supports a quarter of a million jobs.

The goal of the forum was to bring business leaders together – all of whom are dependent on the Colorado River basin – to network and discuss sustainability. Protect the Flows hoped the individuals might be able to share their water-use reduction success stories, look at some case studies, and help promote water efficiency and conservation.

The ultimate goal is to create a strong business voice to advance sustainable water policy, with a focus on incentivizing innovation, efficiency and conservation. But is it too late?

Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), renowned outdoorsman and member of the nation’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, was on hand to help rally the troops.

Udall

Increasing demand, population growth, drought, outdated water policies and inefficient transfer, storage and usage have plagued the Colorado for decades, and water experts are now saying we will face a severe fresh water shortage by 2050. Conservation group American Rivers recently named the Colorado River the “Number One Most Endangered River” in the country. And the much-lauded and frankly alarming Bureau of Reclamation’s multi-year “Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study” released last year says demand for the Colorado River’s water is expected to exceed supply by 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. The study also said that conservation and re-use can yield at least three million acre feet of water and is the most cost-effective and easily implementable way to bring supply and demand on the Colorado River back into balance.

“In order to meet these challenges, we have to acknowledge that the current management and current use of the river is unsustainable. We’ve got to start from that point,” said Udall. “The strategies proposed here, which include reducing demand through innovation, conservation and better management of supply, will help us prepare for the future and reduce the River Basin’s vulnerabilities. In the near-term, we need to focus – and I think we must – on conservation activities and water reuse and recycling. In short, we need to make every drop count.”

Colorado River flows into Lake Powell and other impoundments across the system are at record lows. The situation has become dire enough to mandate water release restrictions from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, signaling possible reductions in irrigation water in the Lower Basin, power production from Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, and in drinking water for Nevada and Arizona within three years.

Award winning author and photographer Jonathan Waterman, who paddled the entire length of the Colorado for his book “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River” was also on hand to give a slideshow and tell the story of his journey and findings. Jennifer Vervier, Director of Sustainability and Strategic Development for New Belgium Brewing, also addressed the more than 35 business owners during a keynote speech kicking off the conference.

Stories also came from Xanterra Parks and Resorts – the nation’s largest concessionaire to the National Parks –and their sustainability pitch woman Catherine Greener, who says her organization has decreased water use, emissions and fossil-fuel use by enrolling guests in its “softer footprint” mission.

But it was Dr. Mark LeChevallier, director of innovation and environmental stewardship, American Water (one of the largest water utilities in the country that serves 15 million people in 30 states) whose words carried the most impact…given that he is a scientist, not a corporate spokesperson. His job as a biologist/engineer for American Water is to understand where water comes from, how much is there, and how to distribute it to customers in the most efficient manner.

LeChevallier says that water has been unduly subsidized to make it affordable, much like petrol fuel. And like gasoline, in order to promote its conservation, we must raise the price on water to reduce its consumption. Conservation measures he has implemented at American Water over the last 10 years have reduced residential consumption by 15 percent.

So, experts agree, solutions do exist. PepsiCo, for example, has reduced its water usage by 20 percent at its Arizona plants and is now working with the Nature Conservancy to replace the same amount of water it uses. Udall suggested a balanced approach between wastewater treatment, expanding storage, increased conservation, and recharging groundwater supplies, in the face of volatile and outdated politics surrounding water usage in the West.

And according to Protect The Flows, business coalitions motivated by their own sustainable future are the key to conservation. “Our members represent a broad range of businesses that depend upon and care about a healthy and flowing Colorado River system. Nearly 1000 businesses from wineries and bed & breakfasts to banks and Fortune 500 companies support our efforts to promote common sense solutions to protect the Colorado River,” the group says. “There are no silver bullet solutions. In the face of escalating demand and the stark reality of potentially decreasing supply, realism, cooperation and innovation are needed to reduce the depletion and degradation of this finite resource. Studies have shown that the most cost effective and easily implementable way to address the imbalance on the Colorado River is to improve urban and agricultural water conservation and similar measures that focus on efficiency and flexibility.”

Visit www.protectflows.com to see more about their efforts to protect this vital resource and how you can help. Hint: It starts by being conscious of every drop.

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