November 2010, Vol. 22, No.11

Firm footing

Organizations that are accustomed to measuring and reporting their sustainable practices might soon be adding another calculation to the mix: water footprinting.

A water footprint is a measurement of how much water is used — directly and indirectly — by an individual, a community, or a business.

Although there is no standard yet in place for analyzing water footprints, they are emerging as an effective tool for businesses to measure direct water use, as well as total water use, throughout the supply chain.

 

Growing demand for footprinting

Calculating a company’s water footprint requires a full accounting of source water, process water, and discharge. It is important for water-intensive industries, such as semiconductor chip manufacturing, food and beverage, and pharmaceuticals, to know where water use is the heaviest across their businesses, according to Mia Javier, an analyst with Cleantech Group (San Francisco), a company that supports the development of clean technologies and provides market intelligence and advisory services to large corporations and governments.

“Many companies that are already pursuing energy conservation or waste reduction strategies are now becoming aware or have already adopted water footprinting as a means to develop more water-efficient business practices,” Javier said.

Still, while many companies are actively incorporating this approach to help achieve greater accountability and more responsible water usage, many others have not yet begun to consider this concept, according to Javier.

“Water is still very cheap and, mostly, companies can just pull and use water as they please,” Javier said.

While there was not much incentive for companies to calculate their water footprints in the past, this is changing rapidly, Javier said. “Water scarcity is becoming increasingly more visible, and investors and consumers want more corporate transparency,” she said. “They want to know where companies are getting their water and just how much they are taking.”

For corporations that are heavily reliant on water, the water footprint calculation can be a way to improve awareness, as well as management of, such water risks as supply shortages in water-stressed areas and regulatory roadblocks, Javier said.

Companies that pull water from water-scarce regions also face risks to their reputation, and there are other risks “tied to water rights and the concern of litigation for using more than is allocated,” Javier said. A water footprint can provide more-comprehensive water use knowledge and increased corporate water accountability that can help mitigate these risks.

Early adopters

Some large manufacturing companies are measuring their water footprint specifically for the purpose of reducing water use. For example, infrastructure, finance, and media conglomerate GE (Fairfield, Conn.) has committed to reduce its overall water footprint by 25% by 2015.

“Following a water footprint or benchmarking assessment, [GE] launched a corporatewide initiative to incentivize their business units to lower [their] water usage,” Javier said. The company provided funding for business units to acquire water-efficient technologies and adopt water conservation practices.

The world’s largest semiconductor chip manufacturer, Intel (Santa Clara, Calif.), recently published its first Water Footprint Assessment Report and subsequently summarized the results in its 2009 Corporate Responsibility Report. In its analysis, the company assessed its carbon footprint and categorized water use according to activities related to direct operations, energy use, and usage by its supply chain.

Tom Cooper, corporate water program manager for Intel, said that despite not having a framework to follow, the company’s water program team was able to forge its own direction in assessing its water footprint.

Intel’s analysis revealed that the largest impact on the company’s water use was a result of direct operations, which amounted to 30 billion L/yr (8 billion gal/yr), or 66% of its total water use. Energy providers were accounting for 12.9 billion L/yr (3.4 billion gal/yr), or 28% of the total, and the remaining water use was in the company’s supply chain.

“Of the total water used in our direct operations, we estimated that 1.5 billion gallons [5.7 million L] was lost to evaporation, such as in cooling towers and scrubbers, while the remaining was reused, used for irrigation, allocated toward groundwater recharge, or used toward replenishing natural water systems,” Cooper said. “We also discovered that Intel’s program for purchasing renewable energy credits worked to significantly reduce the amount of water use that went toward our energy needs. Thus, sizable water footprint reductions were found by switching to low water-demand energy sources.”

The footprint also helped identify future opportunities for additional water use reductions and more water responsibility, Cooper added.

“Water footprinting can help companies target areas where the greatest amount of water efficiency is possible,” Cooper said. “It can also help verify an existing focus. If a company has a water conservation program, the results of a water footprint will reveal if they are implementing the right practices. For Intel, our water footprint results confirmed that our water efficiency efforts were focused correctly.”

 

Standards in development

Since the concept of water footprints is still relatively new, there is no established protocol for calculating them. However, efforts are under way to develop standardized procedures.

Earlier this year, for example, the Water Footprint Network launched its Water Footprint Manual, a comprehensive guide covering water footprint assessments that includes information on calculating the water footprint of processes, products, consumers, and businesses, as well as entire countries.

An initiative recently unveiled by Veolia Water North America (Chicago) includes a comprehensive indicator — the Water Impact Index — that measures the impact of human activity on water resources and can be used as part of a simultaneous water–carbon footprint analysis.

The new index expands on existing water measurement tools, said Laurent Auguste, president and CEO of Veolia Water Americas. It incorporates elements related to water volume, the level of stress of water resources, source water quality, and the quality of wastewater discharge, “taking into account a wide range of factors and actions that can have an impact on water quality and water quantity,” he said.

Working with the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Water Council, and other city-based utilities, Veolia Water conducted what it believed to be the first simultaneous water–carbon study of a major metropolitan city’s water cycle. This study was different from a purely environmental review in that it evaluated water resource impacts and carbon footprint emissions in conjunction with an economic analysis.

Evaluating both the financial and environmental impacts can help cities, municipalities, and industry take a step beyond risk assessment “toward action … [to enable] the right decision to be made in the context of a sustainable approach,” Auguste said.

 

Jeff Gunderson, WE&T

© 2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.