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4 bold collaborations tackling California's drought

Nonprofits with corporates such as Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, General Mills are throwing their weight behind big water projects in the Golden State.

Water is California’s lifeblood, feeding Central Valley farmlands, inviting Malibu lawns and gardens to grow and cooling Silicon Valley data centers. It spurs the state’s diverse ecosystem, allowing for an economy and production exported all across the U.S.  

California’s secret suffering — a record-breaking, five-year drought — has become irreversibly visible in recent years, as the impact of dwindling water levels, population growth, aging infrastructure and climate change strain the state’s access to fresh water. All of California is in "severe drought" or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor

Companies are feeling both the responsibility and the effects of the drought, but it’s not a problem they can tackle alone. The U.S.’s third-largest state is the world’s sixth-largest economy, meaning California’s business sector is critically involved in the health of its waterways. This month 20 organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, investors and NGOs, announced their support for four projects protecting California’s water resources as part of the California Water Action Collaborative.

The CWAC was formed in May 2014 as a working group that brought together industrial and environmental organizations connected by a desire to collaborate towards meeting California’s unique local and state water challenges.

Companies are feeling both the responsibility and the effects of the drought, but it’s not a problem they can tackle alone.

Now, the group is a formal coalition with a membership including Ag Capital Management, Ag Innovations, Anheuser-Busch, Alliance for Water Stewardship, Campbell Soup Company, the CEO Water Mandate, the Coca-Cola Company, Driscoll’s, Ecolab, Future 500, General Mills, MillerCoors, The National Forest Foundation, Nestlé, OLAM, Pacific Institute, Sustainable Conservation, Sustainable Food Lab, the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.

"MillerCoors […] recognizes that water is critical to life, nature, communities and business," said Jonah Smith, sustainability manager at MillerCoors, in a statement. "California is experiencing one of its worst droughts, and collaboration that truly focuses on collective action is an impactful and necessary way to address the state's water resource issues."

The CWAC has three goals:

  • Build social capital for improved local water management.
  • Return water to natural surface water and groundwater systems.
  • Drive corporate water stewardship aligned with Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan

"Water in California is ground zero for considering how we will meet the needs of people, business and nature in a crowded world and in dry times," said Brian Stranko, the Nature Conservancy’s California water program director. "CWAC provides a forum for the industry, non-profits and leading thinkers to take a big picture view of how we achieve a sustainable water future, as well as a conduit for testing ideas in real places on the ground right now to inform that future."

The CWAC is relying on the following four projects to make sure California’s water future is bright. 

1. Farmland Groundwater Recharge

In San Joaquin Valley, Sustainable Conservation is deepening groundwater supplies, which provide 30 percent of California’s usable water in normal years and up to 60 percent in drought years. As extended drought forces Central Valley farms and communities to turn to shrinking groundwater supplies, record amounts of farmland simply have been left idle. 

Some farmers have turned to drilling deep, costly wells while other wells have dried up, leaving communities without reliable drinking water. The Farmland Groundwater Recharge project applies excess floodwater to active and idle farmland, allowing water to percolate down to refill aquifers. Project estimates show it has the potential to capture and return 1 to 3 acre-feet of water per acre of suitable farmland. Participating CWAC companies are Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, MillerCoors and the Coca-Cola Company.

Collaboration that truly focuses on collective action is an impactful and necessary way to address the state's water resource issues.

"Identifying collaboration is key to achieving long-term water stewardship in the state and aligning around the vision of adjusting to the pressing water challenges," Kelli McCune, sustainable conservation senior project manager, told GreenBiz. "Multinational businesses and companies operate, source or input materials and ingredients for their products from California. They see how contributing to water stewardship in the place where they operate is crucial to the environment, and that ensuring a healthy environment means businesses can thrive in the future."

2. American River Headwaters

The Nature Conservancy, working with the U.S. Forest Service, University of California and other partners, is conducting research on a 10,115-acre forest (the American River Headwaters) in the Sierra Nevada to determine whether ecological thinning can increase downstream water supply when snowfall and rain accumulate and replenishes creeks and rivers.

The property is situated upstream of French Meadows and Hell Hole reservoirs, sources of drinking water and hydropower for Sacramento and the surrounding region, as well as a fishery for rainbow trout. The study will serve as a laboratory for scientists to test how responsibly thinning small trees and brush from dense forests can reduce wildfires, restore forest health and resilience, and potentially increase water supply in the American River watershed by up to 3 percent.

The effort is supported by CWAC partners MillerCoors, Nestlé Waters North America, and the Coca-Cola Company. If successful, it can establish forestry policy and best practices that can be implemented in other Sierra watersheds across the American West.  

3. Corporate Water Stewardship and the California Water Action Plan

The CEO Water Mandate (an initiative of the U.N. Global Compact and Pacific Institute) is working with corporate partners to identify where the private sector can accelerate progress toward the goals of the California Water Action Plan, a five-year roadmap for statewide sustainable water management.

It will take close, coordinated effort on all fronts of the project to restore, renew and support California’s weak water supply.

Published in 2014 by Brown’s administration, the plan shows how state agencies, municipalities and other agents together can create more reliable water supply for farms and communities, restore wildlife habitat and species, and create resilience within California’s water ecosystem (which includes human activities). Companies come in by managing their use of resources in a way that supports sustainable economic growth.

Through the project, now in its first phase, participants are identifying relevant stakeholders, successful examples of California water management projects and gaps in the Action Plan’s implementation that businesses can reinforce. In its second phase, participating organizations — currently Nestlé North America, AG Innovations, Olam and WWF — will create new water stewardship initiatives aligned with the Action Plan.

4. San Gabriel and Big Tujunga Watershed

The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Angeles National Forest provide one-third of Los Angeles County’s drinking water, birth creeks that fill groundwater aquifers and provide surface water for millions of people downstream at its feet.

After the 2009 Station Fire that burned more than 160,500 acres of forest, destroyed more than 200 buildings, killed two firefighters and cost nearly $94 million to contain, the National Forest Foundation teamed with local groups to restore the arson-injured watershed, but the efforts took years.

In 2015, several CWAC members partnered with the NFF to restore hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually to the San Gabriel Watershed. They removed 50 acres of a water-intensive invasive species (the "giant cane," or Arundo donax) and are helping to return water to streams sprouting from the San Gabriel Watershed. Beverage makers Coca-Cola, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch are the project’s corporate partners.

It will take close, coordinated effort on all fronts of the project to restore, renew and support California’s weak water supply. The CWAC’s projects will continue to develop, and it expects new projects to emerge to meet the state’s water challenges. 

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