Tag Archives: water

Finding the Money in Water: The Smart Landscaping Boom

With the epic battle raging around AB32, you may have missed another piece of landmark California sustainability legislation. AB 1881, the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, lacks many of the buzzwords that we associate with sustainable business opportunities and green jobs, but don’t be fooled. This baby packs a punch.

Greener Pastures
AB 1881 mandates sweeping water efficiency measures in all new landscaping projects over 2500 square feet, covering everything from drip irrigation to the use of local plants to smart irrigation control systems. To meet these stringent requirements, the ordinance requires landscaping projects to be audited by certified landscape auditors. These requirements are coming online as we speak, as cities and counties around the state enact the mandates that AB 1881 requires.

Why should a bunch of pumps and green collar auditors be on our radar? Because landscaping is to urban water use what 18-wheelers are to gasoline. Of the 8.8 million acre-feet of water used by California’s urban areas, about 2.6 million are used for landscaping (1). The kind of efficient landscaping practices described in AB 1881 could save 20% of that water, possibly more. In a state that’s looking from a water crisis into the precipice of climate change, those water savings will be sorely needed.

We use a tremendous amount of energy to move and treat all that water; the embodied energy in an acre-foot of urban California water could run a microwave nonstop for four months (2).  Moving and treating landscaping water accounts for around 5% of our state’s total electricity use. That mean that some pumps and guys in green caps can save can save a whopping 1% of California’s electricity.

Mapping the Opportunity
According to the 2007 economic census landscaping in California is an $8.2 billion industry. AB 1881 could create some significant growth in that number, growth that will be captured by whoever is best poised to deliver water savings efficiently and effectively.

The winners will vary. Irrigation behemoths like Jaine Irrigation Systems will see a shift in their existing product mix, and may switch their strategy and partnerships accordingly. Groups like the California Landscape Contractors Association will see their ranks swell, and will see increased demand for everything from green jobs training to data services. Finally startups like Hydropoint, which specializes in smart web-based irrigation software, will be the best indicator of this emerging sector’s potential.

The real opportunity will come downstream. It’s common for states across the country to mirror California’s environmental legislation, and with water stress looming in areas that were once considered secure, there is every reason to expect AB 1881 to spend some time on the photocopier. Combine that with the pendulum eventually turning back in real estate development, and you’ve got an area that anyone interested in clean tech and green jobs should be keeping an eye on.

(1) Estimates on this number vary, this one comes from the California Water Plan’s section on efficiency.

(2) An average microwave takes a kilowatt of power, which makes it a useful example when talking about kilowatt hours (kWh). A research project at UCSB estimates that it takes an average of 3,519 kWh to move and treat an average acre-foot of imported urban water in California.  The rest of the stats about water and energy are derived mathematically.


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Why Water Isn’t The Next Carbon

Demand for carbon accounting software is on the rise, with $46 million in VC capital invested in Enterprise Carbon Accounting (ECA) software in the past year and an expected 600% expansion of the market according to Groom Energy. In the wake of disappointing performance at Copenhagen and for US Climate legislation, that’s quite a statement.

Obsessed as I am with the mounting global water crisis, I can’t help but wonder if this explosion of carbon accounting is going to translate over to better accounting for water. “Water is the next carbon” has become a go-to-soundbyte in the workshops and conferences I’ve been attending recently. But the closer I’ve looked, the more I’ve begun to uncover reasons why that’s just not true.

Why Water is Smaller than Carbon

At first glance, managing water seems like a coming echo of the still-yodeling world of carbon accounting. Both have to do with the environment, and keep employees, customers, and stakeholders happy. Both are a way to stay ahead of regulation from congress and the EPA. Both involve looking at your operations and supply chain, seeing where the most stuff gets used, and trying to use less of it. So what’s the big deal?

Carbon Fatigue

Most companies are busy trying to make money, and few understand sustainability well enough to see strong environmental performance as a strategic way to do that. Carbon accounting often happens as a concession to agitating groups of employees, executives, investors, customers and stakeholders. Once that concession has been granted, folks want to get back to the fun part where they outmaneuver the competition and expand market share, not wade into another hairy environmental reporting project.

Water is Cheap

The nice thing about saving carbon is that it generally saves money. Carbon coming out of a company generally starts as electrons and fuel coming in, and both electrons and fuel ain’t cheap. An enterprise-wide project to slim carbon can easily drop hundreds of millions to the bottom line. Not so with water. In many places water is almost too cheap to meter. Agricultural growers use 80% of California’s water. When I asked a major grower about installing basic measures to save the water massive amounts of water used to irrigate his crops, he said “It takes $3500 to grow an acre of spinach. $90 of that is water. If I use 10% less water I risk crop failure and I get 9 bucks, it’s just not worth it.” Most of the cost savings associated with water are in the energy it takes to move that water, so they’re getting capture by carbon audits anyway.

No One Cares

Thanks to “An Inconvenient Truth, the low-carbon lifestyle is in vogue among a growing percentage of the population. Cutting down on driving, eating local, and daydreaming about solar panels have all become popular cafe conversations here on the Left Coast. Few people are asking about the water footprint of their cup of coffee (1100 cups of water). People know that carbon = An Inconvenient Truth, but no picture’s been painted about the impact of water use. That means that pressure from customers and (most importantly) from employees within an organization is slow to manifest.

Why Water is Bigger Than Carbon

‘Cuz it’s WATER

Pop quiz! Which has been the second largest cause of conflict in human history after land rights:

A) Carbon Emissions

B) Water Rights

Go ahead and take your time.

Carbon emissions are a global abstraction. If the company next door emits too much carbon it’ll contribute to a climatologically complicated unprecedented phenomena that I may or may not believe in.  If the company next door pollutes my water or uses it all up then I die. Controversies about water, especially local ones, have the potential to tap into a primal instinct for survival that carbon can never touch. It can cross ideological boundaries in a flash.

This means that public opinion around water will be much more volatile than around carbon. People’s concerns about carbon roll up nicely into big global numbers like 350 PPM, anything that drops us closer to those numbers is good and anything that pushes us away from them is bad. Because climate change is an abstract concept, carrots and sticks associated with it are equally abstract. Happy stakeholders are angry stakeholders. Regulatory risk or no regulatory risk. Lawsuits or no lawsuits.

Water is local, and operates with the abruptness of a tap shutting off. No one cares about water until they feel that their supply is at risk, and then everyone cares. There are the usual regulatory and litigation risks, but there is also the risk that supply will be cut off or become too polluted for a company’s operations, both of which would necessitate an immediate shutdown.   Water shortages triggered by climate change have already begun to impact Nestle’s supply of cocoa from Africa, and though these shorts of shortages are still in their infancy in the States a good look at Australia and give us an idea of what’s in store.

‘Cuz It’s Local

Every time I breathe in, I get a few molecules of air breathed by Ghandi, Beyonce and Aristotle. The atmosphere is one global pool, which means that carbon accounting has the luxury of ignoring where carbon is emitted (with the exception of differences in local laws.)

With water, risk is hyper-localized. The risk associated with a company’s use of water are tied to its watershed, complicated tombs of local regulation, who’s using water up and downstream, and what stakeholder groups live in its backyard. Simply counting water is meaningless unless firms can also track the myriad local risk and opportunity factors associated with everywhere that it uses water. This makes water risk reporting a much larger and uglier beast than carbon for any water-intensive global enterprise, in terms of both the data analysis involved and in terms of the aggregate risk involved. It’ll take a much bigger ecosystem than carbon and a higher net percentage of revenues to manage effectively.

‘Cuz it’s Climate Adaptation, not Climate Mitigation

When it comes down to it, managing carbon is just a moral imperative. Cut our emissions and we (hopefully) make the shocks of global climate weirding a little less severe. The little bit that we can push the lever won’t make enough of a difference, so we call on everyone else to push with us.

Water is a survival imperative, arguably the biggest of those coming shocks. As climatological science comes down the pipe and people begin to understand how global watersheds will change (though climate is just one of a host of drivers) everyone, not just the morally motivated, will sit up and take notice. When they do they’ll see not a global problem that requires a global solution, but a limited local resource that they need their piece of.

If the metaphor for carbon is pushing the needle together, then the metaphor for water is the human immune system. In the immune system, a shockingly diverse array of cells collaborate seamlessly to deal with everything from viruses to parasites to splinters. The cells learn as they go, and rarely get confused and attack the body which supports them. If carbon is one problem located everywhere, water is millions of problems located anywhere. It will take a diverse, decentralized, adaptive ecosystem to keep us thriving.

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After yesterday’s discussion about water development Ezra was eager to take my on a walk to show me some water development in action. “These hills are littered with water projects that are dry” he said “but I’ll show you one that actually flows.”

We set out through ankle deep dust with the dog, Detu, to trek up the foothill where our water comes from. On the path were a steady stream of Masai, red cloth draped around their western clothes, carrying water and grain to and from their villages. Ezra greeted everyone he saw on the road enthusiastically, and stopped with most of them to converse in Swahili, which gave me a perfect chance to pick up some vocab.

Soon after starting out we came across a revine about 30 feet deep. When rain comes it rips through the soft soil creating these canyons. We hiked through to catch some shade and saw the goats and monkeys that had wandered too close to the edge and perished there.

We came onto the first junction of the water project, which was foreshadowed by a small stream of water trickling down the path and disappearing into the dust. Ahead of us was a large concrete box surrounded by women and children with buckets. On the front of the box was a faucet which flows at the rate of a kitchen sink. This faucet, Ezra informed me, is left running night and day despite the drought. Tired of waiting in long lines to fill their buckets at the tap, the local village had busted open the top of the concrete box so that they could dip their buckets in directly, buckets which had previously been resting in the cow dung while the children waited their turn. A hose had been inserted into the pipe which feeds water into the box to allow for even faster filling, and this hose was left running onto the ground when not in use.

The results were clear to see. All of the excess use left the output pipe running to a nearby village high and dry. Ezra grabbed the hose and scolded the children, explaining to them that the nearby village was suffering because of their actions, then jumped down from the box exasperated. “A big German used to go an rile up the downstream village when this happened, and it kept the system working,” he said “but now that he’s gone it’s just falling apart.”

We hiked up further, past fields of baby corn to a large concrete trough which farmers were siphoning with hoses to inefficiently irrigate their fields. “This was designed to allow cattle to drink.” Ezra explained “Now the population is too dense for herding and it’s all farmers.” An old man explained how the pipe had broken, and how he had warn out his shoe hiking up the mountain to repair it. We both thanked him and continued up the slope.

We entered a tree farm, and came across a group of four boys who had designed an ingenious cart. It had four wooden wheels, handles for six boys to pull it at once and a steering mechanism built out of sticks. We were so impressed that we helped them to push it up the hill, the eight year old engineer leading the way.

As dinnertime approached we stopped to rest and turned back to head for home. The dog kicked up dust racing through the trees and we enthusiastically followed, jumping off hillocks and landing in a cloud. “Every generation these fields get divided” Ezra mused, “there isn’t enough water and there’s already barely enough land. These people used to be herders, now there’s nowhere to graze.”

As we trekked home, I noticed a small pile of plastic wrappers and bottles swirling by the side of the road. In this vast, populated hillside with no waste management system the amount of plastic left lying around was roughly equivalent to what my apartment puts out in a week. Maybe plastic is just a holiday here.

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