Gap, General Mills, Symantec push for California drought action

An irrigation pipe on a Southern California farm.
ShutterstockEddie J. Rodriguez
An irrigation pipe on a Southern California farm.

California’s drought is more than a California problem.  

That point was underscored Thursday, when General Mills, Gap, Symantec, Coca-Cola, Driscoll's and other cross-sector companies dependent on California supply chains joined forces with the sustainable business group Ceres to press state lawmakers — and residents — toward more urgent and innovative responses to water scarcity.

“We rely on thousands of California farmers to provide us with high quality products,” said General Mills Senior Manager of Global Sustainability Ellen Silva on a conference call announcing the Ceres-organized campaign to gmobilize private-public partnerships to address California’s record setting water shortage.

“We’ve committed to water conservation in our operations, but it goes beyond our walls. Ninety-nine percent of the water used (to make General Mills products) is outside of our operations,” Silva said. So the company needs to work with the farmers in its supply chain but also the water districts and state government, she said, to manage water resources and hedge against future scarcity.

California's most severe drought on record is entering its fourth year, with 90 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

The agricultural industry is being hit the hardest; farmers have left some 500,000 acres of farmland unplanted or at least unharvested for lack of water. Losses associated with fallow land and ruined crops have been estimated at $2.2 billion for 2014 alone. Those losses have meant tens of thousands of jobs in farming communities, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board.

“Traditionally business is not at the table for many of California’s water conversations,” said Kirsten James, senior manager of water and climate policy at Ceres. However, “We are in an era marked by devastating drought and unprecedented water restrictions.” 

So Ceres, a sustainability advocacy group with a business and investor consituency, launched its so-called Connect the Drops campaign to, “bring diverse business voices into these conversations.”

KB Homes, Symantec, Levi Strauss Co. and Gap Inc.  along with Coca-Cola, General Mills and Driscoll’s signed on as founding sparticipants in the effort.

“Water is the number one ingredient in everything we make,” said Jon Radtke of The Coca-Cola Company.  

In California, Coca Cola has 53 facilities, and all of them are highly dependent on water. Radtke, manager of sustainability for Coca-Cola North America, said the company has put in place water efficiency measures in the past couple years and has been working with water agencies and communities.

From risk to action

The business risks associated with water scarcity are growing for companies with operations in California — and other Western states — bolstering the argument that business has to step up its water stewardship and involvement with state government to maximize conservation and water re-use technologies.

California voters passed a $7.5 billion water bond measure to invest in water storage, mostly reservoirs, and in water efficiency infrastructure improvements, such as new conveyance pipes.  The legislature has also passed a groundwater protection and conservation measure.

But state government has stopped short of water rationing or requiring significant conservation measures beyond banning the obvious excess waste of sprinkling lawns after a rainfall, using hoses without shutoff nozzles to wash cars, and the like.  A year ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown called on state residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce water use by 20 percent from 2013 levels as the state endures the drought emergency. But in the most recent measure, this January, Californians had reduced water usage by only 8.8 percent from January 2013 levels.

The business voices on the Ceres call Thursday talked about speedier implementation of the groundwater measures and wanting a say in the use of bonds.  They spoke of wanting a seat at the table with state government officials on these issues.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, was also on the Ceres call and seemed to welcome their involvement.

“The business community has played a critical leadership role from time to time,” she said, mentioning industry weight behind the bond measure. She described the water situation as so dire that it needs all hands on deck: “We have hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland laying fallow. We have thousands of people out of work and communities without water, where we are delivering water in trucks.”

All of this is not necessarily going to turn around next year, she said, noting that Australia’s experience proved droughts can last many years.

Driscoll's, the strawberry and raspberry grower which is the world's largest berry supplier, acknowledged that agribusiness has a resonsibility.  Farming uses the vast majority of California's surface water sources.

“The drought did not creep up on us. It is one of the big issues we’ve been dealing with,” said Kelley Bell, Driscoll's vice president of social and environmental impact.  "We came to the conclusion we are part of the problem,” as an agriculture company, “So we better be part of the solution.” 

The office of California State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), chair of the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, was asked for a reaction to the business group's call for involvement.

"We need organizations like Ceres to motivate environmentalists and business leaders to join forces and work together on developing unique and viable business models designed to protect the planet on all levels," said Elizabeth Fenton, spokesperson for the office of Senator Pavley.