For MillerCoors, water scarcity means a world without beer

Beer lovers — now that I have your attention — let's talk water. Nowhere in the country is water more critical an issue and looming risk than in my home state of California…critical to farmers, utilities, businesses, and yes, even breweries.

The current drought has brought a host of challenges for our growing state, including more wildfires, collapsing delta ecosystems and fisheries, decaying infrastructure and declining water quality. While California is on track to reduce carbon pollution due to our progressive climate and energy policies, our water challenges are the elephant in the room.

So it was inspiring to attend a daylong event convened by the Pacific Institute in Los Angeles, where leading corporate, nonprofit and technical water experts homed in on water stewardship and shared innovative solutions to the business and environmental challenges we face with regard to water scarcity.

The companies represented there — including AT&T, Deloitte, MillerCoors and Veolia — see water scarcity as a current business risk, as well as a critical component to economic growth in California, the Colorado River Basin and around the world. The World Economic Forum even ranked water crises as the third most pressing global risk for 2014.

"Often, the greatest risks come from conditions over which the company has the least influence," noted Jason Morrison of the Pacific Institute, whose Water Action Hub offers a powerful guide with tools and resources for collective action.

The day's far-reaching discussion would be impossible to capture in a single blog post, so I'll highlight here just a few of the challenges and solutions that stuck with me after a full day of information sharing.

It's time for new ideas

Credit: Don O'Brien via FlickrThe Pacific Institute's water director, Heather Cooley, emphasized the limits of old thinking, and the importance of rethinking demand, supply and management of water.

Many participants agreed, stressing that we can't just do more of the same, such as building bigger centralized infrastructure or pumping more ground water when it's not being recharged at the same rate.

Instead, we need to reduce waste and increase efficiency, rethink economic priorities and choices in both urban and agriculture uses, treat and reuse wastewater, capture storm water, and improve data collection and monitoring.

Collaboration is key

Another theme that surfaced throughout the day is the importance of partnerships to achieve lasting results. Operating a brewery in the Irwindale section of Los Angeles, MillerCoors is constantly reminded how its capability to operate is tied to the city's water resources, said Kim Marotta, director of sustainability. Water risk is a material issue for the company; no water means no beer. To create change, companies like MillerCoors have to share the responsibility alongside communities.

If Marotta's talk was any indication, they are taking action. Partnerships with farmers have dramatically cut water use, runoff and energy use through innovations such as planting tall native vegetation, retrofitting irrigation systems and implementing best practices for water management.

Through these and other measures, MillerCoors was able to reduce water use by 1.1 billion gallons as a company, equivalent to the annual needs of 11 million people.

Follow the energy-water nexus

Campbell Soup Co. has been tracking the intersection of energy and water use since 2012, analyzing water efficiency at each point from well to discharge, according to Dan Sonke, manager of sustainable agriculture programs. As a result, the food company has identified numerous opportunities to improve performance, through testing different irrigation scheduling practices and sharing data and best practices with Campbell's growers.

Credit: Marc Wellekötter via Flickr

As a result, the company has lowered water use by 34 percent by changing irrigation practices and consequently weathered a drought year with minimal impact. The company is also looking at reusing "tomato water" that contains low-level organic matter.

The need for (and dearth of) data

As many exciting solutions as the speakers identified, they kept coming back to the reality that businesses need to get much more serious about assessing their own water performance and risks. The scarcity of data — both on the risk side and top-line - remains a huge obstacle; many stakeholders are reluctant to publicly release data and there is a lack of standardized data collection.

Ultimately, the reality of water scarcity and climbing demand will leave no choice for stakeholders who are reluctant to part with data sets. Advances in technology such water smart meters may provide a promising path to better and easier data collection, lowering the cost and hassle factor for water users including farmers.

The theme here is that stewardship starts with measurement: if they haven't already, businesses need to start assessing their water performance, set a baseline and work towards reducing use.

For commercial and institutional water users, tools such as the Water Efficiency Toolkit that EDF developed with AT&T can offer a first step toward assessing water performance and mapping out actions they can take to improve it.

We've all been raised to see water as something renewable, infinite and nearly free. But unless businesses, communities and governments work together now to be better stewards of our shared water resources, we may find ourselves with nothing left to fill beer bottles, soup cans, water glasses or irrigation pipes.

Top image of empty beer glass by Alexander Marushin via Shutterstock. This article first appeared at the EDF+Business blog.