Water Basics: You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure


Water Basics: You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure

As if curbing our greenhouse gas emissions didn't present a big enough challenge, some businesses are feeling the additional burden of water scarcity. Depending on where your company is located, you'll either face water shortages now or, if increasingly dire water predictions hold true, in the not-too-distant future.

However, while national and multinational organizations are increasingly seeing strategic value in addressing climate change, few organizations are thinking seriously about the risk of water scarcity as it relates to their business. [For a look at the ways some companies in water-scarce regions are dramatically cutting their water use, see "Saving Every Last Drop," by Sarah Fister Gale.]

In an effort to help companies better manage water risk and think more holistically about their available resources, we set out to develop a graphic highlighting regions in the U.S. with the greatest risk of water scarcity, both in the present and the future. While we imagined this exercise to be relatively straightforward, we wound up on a frustrating chase for up-to-date data.

We did, however, discover some data compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1995, comparing average consumptive use and renewable water supply across the country. This yielded a decent but dated state-by-state proxy for water scarcity. With only the proxy to go on, we then took a look at websites of municipalities and local utilities from the water scarce regions to see what type of incentive programs for water conservation were currently offered (Figure 1 below; more information about conservation programs at the bottom of this post).

Fig 1. Includes a proxy for water scarcity by U.S. States based on the ratio of consumptive use and renewable water supply (USGS, 1995), as well as current examples of water conservation incentive programs in the southwestern United States.
(Click here for full-size image)
water scarcity in U.S.
Water is a vital ingredient to every element of business -- from facilities, to manufacturing, to supply chain, to end use -- and water scarcity poses growing risks for businesses and investors (see this recent study from Ceres and Pacific Institute).  The good news is, companies can often reduce the payback period on their investments in water conservation by leveraging financial incentives like the ones shown in figure 1.  Unfortunately, it is difficult for executives to stay on top of cost-effective ways to conserve water if regional water scarcity information is out of date or hard to find.

As climate change and population growth continue to put a strain on our water resources, it is critical to have an up-to-date and accurate record of our water supplies. Despite numerous federal and state initiatives in place to monitor water supplies, resources are fragmented and lack focus.

Currently, more than 20 federal agencies are responsible for collecting and managing data on water supply and quality. With resources and responsibilities split in so many ways, water researchers and managers feel that the U.S. is suffering from a lack of coordination when it comes to water.

In an effort to address the problem, House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) recently introduced legislation (H.R. 1145) to improve federal water research programs. In a press release on February 24th, Gordon stated, "If we are to meet the water crises of the future, we need an effective research and development effort that provides tools and information to manage our water resources effectively." The press release went on to say that "water shortages can negatively affect companies and entire industries and reduce job creation and retention."

We think Gordon is proposing the right first step -- let's get our ducks in a row, coordinate the efforts of our government agencies, and figure out where the problems exist. An application of the classic turn of phrase, "you can't manage what you don't measure," we think states, businesses, and the community will benefit from a more comprehensive and focused approach to our water scarcity challenges.

State Description Arizona The City of Prescott encourages businesses to conserve water with financial incentives for retrofitting wasteful water-use devices with efficient ones http://www.cityofprescott.net/services/water/conservation.php New Mexico Sante Fe’s Sangre de Cristo Water offers commercial incentives for air-cooled ice machines and commercial dishwashers http://www.santafenm.gov/index.asp?NID=1110 Texas The San Antonio Water System provides an economic incentive in the form of rebates to those customers that choose to convert to water-saving equipment and practices http://www.saws.org/conservation/commercial/ California The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Save A Buck program offers cash rebates on a wide variety of water-saving technologies as well as many industry specific water conserving devices http://www.mwdsaveabuck.com/commercial_01.php Nevada The Southern Nevada Water Authority offers rebates for Water Smart landscaping and water efficient technologies http://www.snwa.com/html/cons_biz.html Utah The Central Utah Water Conservancy District awards Water Conservation Technology Grants up to $5,000 for water conservation projects http://www.cuwcd.com/publicinformation/conservation.htm Colorado The City of Boulder offers its water users rebates on irrigation systems, clothes washers, and water efficient toilets and urinals www.bouldersaveswater.net

Andrew Collier and Andrew Glantz are analysts at GreenOrder, an LRN company. The strategy and management consulting firm has helped leading companies turn sustainability into business value since 2000. Have a question or thought to share? Email us.