Michael Levitin reports on how some of America’s biggest companies are working to tackle drought conditions that threaten the country’s biggest source of fresh food, and pushing for stronger legislation

In America’s most populous state water stress is not a risk on the distant horizon; it’s a matter of life and death today. US fire authorities have said that the rapid spread of deadly wildfires that have devastated parts of northern California were exacerbated by drought conditions that have afflicted the state for the past six years.

In May 2014, after Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, multinational companies, non-profits and public-sector agencies met in Los Angeles to discuss a long-term response to a water crisis that affects the production of almost half the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

It was a perfect storm to engage businesses in California and make some significant change

That same year, the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (Bicep) network, a coalition of more than 50 companies brought together by the sustainability non-profit Ceres, began working to develop water conservation strategies and influence smart water policy at the state level. 

The results were two high-impact, private-public initiatives – the California Water Action Collaborative, or CWAC (pronounced Quack), and the Connect the Drops campaign, which are now bringing water agencies, NGOs and Fortune 500 corporations together in powerful new ways to tackle California’s growing water crisis, with a potential to expand their success elsewhere. 

“It was a perfect storm to engage [businesses in] California and make some significant change,” said Kirsten James, Ceres’ director of California policy and partnerships and manager of the Connect the Drops initiative.

California’s recent wildfires have been exacerbated by its six-year drought. (Credit: Aarti Kalyani/Shutterstock)
“We wanted to show our political leaders that water touches all parts of the California economy, and we worked with these companies, talking to decision-makers in Sacramento to support what we think is policy that will move our state down a path of having a secure water future.”
Working alongside the five-year California Water Action Plan, which Governor Jerry Brown passed in 2014 to establish water conservation as a long-term state priority, Connect the Drops gives companies a platform to demonstrate their own water-saving achievements, bolstering their argument that water conservation is smart business for both the state and the private sector. 
Today, the campaign features 35 big-name firms across many sectors – from homebuilding to tech, and from retail to the food and beverage industries – sending a clear signal that businesses understand the degree to which their own future in California is entwined with the state’s water security.

These companies are becoming advocates because they’re recognising they can only do so much within their four walls

One is Target, the second-largest retailer in the US and a giant in the food retail sector, which in October joined eight other large companies in Ceres’ AgWater Challenge programme with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) when it committed to sharply reducing water consumption across its California supply chain.

The company’s strategies include working directly with farmers to develop off-season cover crops that replenish and restore the soil, expanding agricultural acreage while reducing the need for so much irrigation and fertiliser. With Target leading the way, said James, “it’s going to have quite an impact, inspiring other grocers to follow suit”. 

Currently, 70% of the world’s freshwater supply goes to the food sector, thus food and beverage companies play an especially important role in helping to reduce water use. The giant berry producer Driscoll’s, which relies on abundant groundwater to grow its strawberries and other fruits, is now working to recharge California’s underground aquifers through water recycling methods and using new data-collection technology to inform farmers about best irrigation practices. The company is also lobbying to help pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which would help strengthen water conservation policies at the state level.

Target has committed to reduce water consumption in its California supply chain. (Credit: Sundry Photography)

Despite corporate support, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act failed to pass earlier this year. But companies aligned with Connect the Drops – including Adobe, General Mills, Hilton, Kaiser Permanente, Genentech, Danone, Kellogg, North Face and PepsiCo – recently helped two other pieces of legislation succeed, Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668, known together as Making Water Conservation A California Way of Life, successfully turning their concepts of water efficiency, conservation and drought preparedness into state law. 

“These companies are becoming advocates because they’re recognising they can only do so much within their four walls, so policy is really the driver,” said James. The strength of the dual law is that it allows companies to engage in water conservation practices at a level they feel comfortable with, enabling some firms to pursue more aggressive water stewardship programmes and others less so.

As an iconic company in California, Levi Strauss wants to be part of the solution

Clothing giant Gap, for example, posted Connect the Drops logos in all the windows of its 54 Banana Republic stores throughout the state. 

Autodesk, a giant in software design that employs lots of water to run its data centres, has demonstrated better water management both in business operations and in the tools it provides to customers seeking smarter city designs. PepsiCo has made commitments to cut water use in its operations and supply chains, including at its Frito-Lay manufacturing facilities in California. 

And the clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss, which operates a finishing factory in the Los Angeles area, launched a PR campaign encouraging people to wash their jeans less often. “As an iconic company in California, they want to be part of the solution,” said James. (See ‘Water-less’ manufacturing and new cotton irrigation techniques spell hope for brands)


Driscoll’s is using water recycling methods to recharge underground aquifers. (Credit: Ken18/Shutterstock)

The California Water Action Collaborative includes some of the same companies as Connect the Drops – Target, Coca-Cola, Hilton, Driscoll’s and General Mills – but is, in many ways, even more ambitious.

This is because the consortium of several dozen organisations and multinational companies organised under CWAC has explicitly chosen to engage in innovative, metrics-driven water management pilot projects with a potential to scale and, if proven successful in California, to be replicated worldwide.

“It’s really appealing because you can use California and translate [the success here] elsewhere in places like Brazil, South Africa and India,” said Jason Morrison, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, which helped initiate CWAC four years ago through the Water Action Hub, an online water stewardship collaboration tool it developed with the CEO Water Mandate.

If these projects in California prove to be effective there would be an interest to apply them to other parts of the world

The hub had allowed organisations to find and team up with others working on specific dimensions of the California water crisis, from urban water use to agriculture to climate mitigation. 

But with CWAC they created a unique, powerhouse alliance of corporate, non-profit and state actors capable of delivering water management projects with sustainable financing models, using metrics that aligned with the state’s broader water action plan.

It’s the first time so many different private-public entities are working to address the water crisis in such a shared, coherent network, said Morrison, holding out the possibility of greater things to come.

Companies are working to reduce irrigation in supply chains. (Credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez/Shutterstock)

“If there’s one thing a global company does well, it’s to scale its successful practice fast. If these [water management] projects in California prove to be effective and a good way to organise partnerships with environmental organisations, we could expand the CWAC model to other parts of North America, and if it’s proven to work there, there would be an interest to apply it to other parts of the world.”

Included in the collaborative is Microsoft, which has committed to using only greywater and captured stormwater for all its irrigation and sanitation needs at its Northern California facilities. Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are working alongside The Nature Conservancy to increase forestland and improve watershed management at the American River Watershed, which those companies depend on for their products.

The Pacific Institute is meanwhile working with Hilton, WWF and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority to reduce water use, replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants and recharge groundwater with managed stormwater in the Santa Ana River Basin of Southern California.

If you can make a strong return on investment argument, then you’ll get more companies to make those investments

Addressing its food supply chain, Danone along with Sustainable Conservation is working with dairy farmers to irrigate their corn fields for cattle using nitrate-rich water taken from the cows’ own manure-holding lagoons, which reduces water use while increasing the corn yield due to the high nitrate content. And General Mills, Campbell’s, agri-business supplier Olam International and University of California Davis, along with the non-profit Sustainable Conservation, are working with orchard farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta studying whether flood irrigation in winter months can produce greater plant root resilience, enabling farmers to use less water in the summer months.

Each of these CWAC projects involve a unique mix of government, private sector and NGO participation, but share adherence to UN Sustainability Development Goal 6: to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, says Morrison. Above all, the collaborative is laser-focused on establishing the cost savings and water benefits of each project, he says. “Because if you can make a strong return on investment argument, then you’ll get more companies to make those investments.”

Google and food-flavouring giant Firmenich are also considering joining the alliance. If big Southern California employers like Kaiser Permanante, Disney and Bank of America can be convinced to come on board as well, it would be a game-changer, said Morrison.

Orchard farmers are experimenting with flood irrigation in winter months. (Credit: Petr Vorabev)

These companies “have a long-term interest in California being a water-secure state, and they’re interested in investing in the resiliency of that supply chain. It’s enlightened self-interest and that’s where the power of these collaborations lies,” Morrison added. “When people understand these aren’t just each drops in a bucket, but that they contribute to something bigger, that’s when they get mobilised and energised.”

Kirsten James of Ceres agrees that the water landscape in the Golden State has been transformed. “I think there’s still a long way that California needs to go, like ensuring safe water for all communities, but we’ve made some good inroads. Now we have to be vigilant that we’re implementing these plans in a way that’s effective and makes sense.”

Michael Levitin is a journalist based in Berkeley, California, covering climate and clean energy financing among other topics. He has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Time and Newsweek.

Main photograph credit: David Litman/Shutterstock


California  wildfires  drought  Governor Jerry Brown  CWAC  Connect the Drops 

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