How business can keep clean water flowing

Toledo, Ohio, made international news earlier this month when local authorities advised the roughly 400,000 residents — including my in-laws — that their water was too contaminated to use: no bathing, no drinking, no laundry, no cooking. Boiling the water wasn't even an option because the water's toxicity only increased with temperature.

The news coverage has sparked a promising dialogue about the need to improve water quality. Conversations have been ranging from tightening Clean Water Act standards to quantifying the cost of improving our nation’s infrastructure.

These conversations are needed and necessary. As The Nature Conservancy has pointed out, we spend billions around the world in order to clean water but do little to prevent it from getting polluted in the first place.

The cause of the water-quality crisis in Toledo — and in many other communities around the world — is the growth of large algal blooms “fed” by fertilizer runoff from industrial, agricultural and residential wastes, sewer overflows and leaking septic systems. Rain carries the nutrients from their source to our lakes, beaches and eventually our taps. Development along waterfronts and the flat lake plain further has exacerbated this problem by stripping our floodplains’ capacity to absorb, filter and mitigate runoff. With climate-change research predicting bigger and more frequent rainstorms across the Midwest and northeast United States, this problem will get worse if left unchecked.

Frankly, we can’t afford to let that happen: algae blooms such as Toledo's cost the United States an estimated $2.2 billion annually. Millions of dollars of lost revenue vanished from the Toledo economy in just a few days, as the water shutdown closed all food establishments and lakefront recreational areas. The New York Times estimated that a similar bloom in 2011 crippled the Lake Erie tourism industry, which contributes $10 billion annually to the Ohio economy. More broadly, the Great Lakes provide the backbone of a $3.7-trillion regional economy as well as drinking water for 40 million people.

How do we go about changing the focus of our conversation from problem to solution? How do we procure cleaner water from our agricultural and urban watersheds for drinking, swimming and fishing? What role does private capital and business play in securing clean water?

Agricultural watersheds

Toledo’s water quality, like that of many other cities adjacent to farmland, directly is affected by agricultural practices. In order for city residents to co-exist with the farmland upstream, we need a proactive approach to land management that deploys conservation practices at the right place and scale. Luckily, farmers are some of the world’s best land managers. Their ability to adopt new technology can work to our advantage as we work with them to manage agricultural watersheds for clean water, or, if you will, to “grow clean water.”

The Nature Conservancy protects water quality in three major ways. One, driving adoption of in-field practices that improve nutrient stewardship and soil health such as nutrient management, conservation tillage and cover crops. Two, investing in improved water management (public ditches and farm field sub-surface tile drainage systems) to improve water flow for farm production and reduce nutrient runoff. Three, restoring floodplains and wetlands, and stabilizing stream banks to slow water movement and reduce nutrients and sediment in the water — also known as natural infrastructure.

We are working with leaders across industry, government and academia to encourage farmers and fertilizer vendors to adopt proven best practices in the Lake Erie watershed. The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program provides a consistent, recognized standard for the entire agricultural community in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Third-party audits ensure compliance.

TNC also has developed an outcome-based conservation information system that soon could move into the agricultural supply chain, allowing farmers to inform their management options. They can do this through downloading satellite photographs of their fields and mapping their management practices. The management system will tell them the environmental impact of their practices, and suggest alternatives for better conservation outcomes at comparable or improved crop yields.

This information then can be used across the supply chain — upstream to the fertilizer suppliers and certified crop advisors, and downstream to the food and beverage manufacturers and retailers who are increasingly concerned about sustainability-conscious consumer demand.

Agriculture is changing fast. Traditional conservation through government agencies and conservation districts, even with heroic efforts, are constrained by reduced funding, fewer staff and an increasingly influential private-sector marketing force. With the help of precision agriculture data and targeting practices for maximum effectiveness, agribusinesses better can manage for clean water, and governments can make smarter policy. By aligning consumer demand, corporate sustainability claims and conservation, we can achieve the scale necessary to drive real, lasting change.

Urban watersheds

The Nature Conservancy is also working on practical applications of natural infrastructure in the urban context. Its NatureVest program, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and EKO Asset Management, has formed the Natural Infrastructure Financing Laboratory (or NatLab). NatLab assists municipalities in solving problems of runoff through investments in natural infrastructure — in this case, natural sources of water retention and filtration such as green roofs, rain gardens or wetlands.

The vision of our collaboration is to empower cities to solve challenges of water pollution, drinking-water protection, air quality and climate resilience by drawing on a toolkit of natural infrastructure solutions and financing mechanisms that can drive those solutions at the lowest possible public cost.

Just as is true in agriculture, a growing body of evidence suggests that natural infrastructure solutions in the urban context can be less expensive than traditional infrastructure — and can provide a host of economic, social and environmental co-benefits, including economic revitalization and green job creation.

Both Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia (PDF) have created policy environments that encourage private investment in natural infrastructure. By using market-based mechanisms such as stormwater credit trading and reverse auctions to find the cheapest natural infrastructure sites, they demonstrate the feasibility of more financially or environmentally sustainable solutions than another wastewater treatment plant project worth hundreds of millions of dollars. By incentivizing natural infrastructure on private property, they properly have spread the risk (and opportunity) to the private sector.

Our nation’s water infrastructure is in dire need of an overhaul, yet its scale outstrips the capacity of the public sector to address and finance it. As the Toledo event revealed, many bear the costs of polluted waters — from hospitals to restaurants — who have little control or influence over the source of it. To solve this problem we’ll need an open conversation with a diverse group of committed participants.

For now, we can look to cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., or to the power of consumer choice, to illustrate how a substantial portion of the billions of private investment in traditional infrastructure productively and profitably can be diverted toward investment in natural infrastructure.

TNC is not alone in advocating for this approach. The work of some of our peers in this space, including the World Resources Institute, also is breaking new ground.

Our job at TNC is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends — and there is no more immediate threat to our health and wellbeing than the quality and security of the water for people and nature. For the future of my family in Toledo and all families subjected to poor water quality, we can and must find creative solutions to this ever-growing problem.

Top image by David Hawgood.