Green corporate campuses tested by California drought

corporate campus sinks, water use
Some companies already have taken measures to cut water use on corporate campuses, but they'll have to do more to make the grade during a drought.

If your company already uses the most sophisticated techniques to conserve water, what happens when you need to conserve even more?

That’s the conundrum for commercial property owners and investors in California, facing a 25 percent water-use reduction regulation.

Sure, California’s water utilities could raise their rates. But well-funded Silicon Valley giants with the state's largest corporate campuses have plenty of cash to pay their water bills, illustrating that conservation is more complex than cost alone.

Statewide drought, local decision making

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s new mandate leaves the details to local water boards. In April, state regulators took their second crack at a draft of strict community-by-community water reduction rules, as recently detailed in the New York Times.

For companies that own or operate real estate in California, the water-reduction mandates pose a challenge — and not because commercial property owners and investors are water-wasters.

The good news and the bad news is that most companies already have taken steps to reduce water waste in the quest for efficient building operations. There’s not as much opportunity for reduction as one might expect.

As explained in a new JLL report, half of California’s water supply remains in the environment. The agricultural sector consumes 40 percent more. The remaining 10 percent of water used in the state goes to urban and suburban homeowners and businesses. Just 2.5 percent of all state water goes to commercial real estate landscaping and indoor consumption.

Sustainability-minded corporations are already contributing to water conservation in California, either in response to previous legislation, to save costs or to obtain LEED, Green Globes or ENERGY STAR certifications on their buildings.

Learn more about the latest in corporate conservation at VERGE 2015, Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, California.

Many already have installed low-flow water fixtures and have employed water-restrictive landscaping techniques, including minimal lawns and native plants in drier climates.

At this point, environmentally sustainable features are viewed as table stakes by many owners and developers, and attention to green building materials is considered a core competency for some. Commercial property building owners and occupiers can and should team up to implement sustainable building practices that make a significant contribution to reducing a building’s environmental footprint.

For example, it may be difficult for an industrial property landlord to mitigate water usage if the tenant on site uses copious amounts of water as part of its normal business process. Collaboration will be essential.

However, it is important to remember that the 25 percent reduction is a statewide average mandate; various water districts may be required to reduce water use by a level above or below that state average.

In short, not all water districts are created equal where conservation goals are concerned.

Weapons in the fight to reduce water use

The state of California has made it clear that local water boards should target low-hanging fruit, such as landscaping, in the commercial building sector.

Here’s a few ways water restrictions will affect corporations and corporate landlords:

  • Landscaping: Owners of suburban office parks will need to consider water use more than owners of urban office buildings with little or no landscaping. Drought-resistant native plants should be part of the solution for suburban properties. If irrigation systems are in place, owners are responsible for preventing any water run-off or waste.
  • Building plumbing and technology upgrades: Building owners and tenants must adopt low-flow technology upgrades where feasible to reduce their water use. The state mandate includes a moratorium on water fixtures that are not low-flow, and plenty of low-flow options are on the market.
  • Reuse of gray water: Another strategy smart is to use gray water — the relatively clean wastewater from sinks and water fountains — for landscape irrigation, toilet flushing, custodial purposes and building systems. The potential benefits? Reducing water demands and disposal costs while also saving on energy consumed by pumps, heaters or chillers.

Landlords can tap into government tax incentives to help mitigate the costs associated with replacing lawns, improving irrigation systems and upgrading metering systems. Corporate owners and occupiers also can enlist employees in using water wisely.

Commercial property owners and investors that already have invested in water conservation should be applauded for doing their part long before a record-breaking drought occurred.

Are additional reductions in water use both possible and feasible? In most cases, yes. But, like most rewarding activities, possible doesn’t always mean easy.