Growing blue: Water, economic development, and corporate stewardship - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Growing blue: Water, economic development, and corporate stewardship

Ryan Griffin-Stegink

Laurent Auguste, President and CEO of Veolia Water Americas, lays out his vision for aligning water conservation with water-dependent economic development.

I do my best to conserve water at home.  I try to be smart about actual water use—only running full loads of laundry, keeping a pitcher of water in the fridge so I don't have to wait for cold water, etc.—but I rent, so I'm not in a position to retrofit my apartment with too much in the way of water-efficient plumbing fixtures.  That said, I have installed faucet aerators and a low-flow shower head, and I put a used 2-liter soda bottle in my toilet tank to trick it into thinking it requires less water with every flush.  Between all that, I'd guess that I've reduced my daily water consumption by 15 gallons or so (of course, because I don't receive a water bill, I don't really know for sure).  Over a year, that's 5,475 gallons of water, which is pretty good.

The Hyatt Regency in Chicago does its best to conserve water too.  Over the course of the last two years the hotel has re-piped the entire facility, installed a variable speed booster system and a few bladder tanks to optimize pressure, and begun retrofitting all 2,019 rooms with modern fixtures.  When the project is finished (which should be soon), annual water savings should be about 34 million gallons.

I'd have to convince 6,210 of my friends and neighbors (or all of Putnam County, Ill.) to be better water stewards in order to come close to what the Hyatt will have achieved by the time they're done.  I'm not sure I know that many people, and if I do, I'm not sure they all like me enough to swap out their shower heads.  

We all need to do our part, but some of us have bigger parts than others.  To truly transform the way our society uses water, the private sector and large non-profit institutions really need to be at the vanguard.  Fortunately, many are, and last week at MPC and Openlands' most recent water roundtable, "Growing Blue: Water, Economic Development, and Corporate Stewardship," about 100 people had the opportunity to learn more about some of those innovators.  

Laurent Auguste, President and CEO of Veolia Water Americas, kicked off the event with two scenarios for the future of the global environment.  In one, population growth and economic productivity continue to grow most rapidly in areas with the scarcest water, whether it be in China or India, or closer to home in Nevada or Arizona.  In the bluer vision, we align water demand management incentives, technological fixes, and a dash of common sense to focus population and economic growth in areas with more abundant water supplies, such as the Chicago area. He also used Veolia's Water Impact Index to explain the shortcomings inherent in a purely volumetric focus on water.  Using a gallon of relatively clean water from Lake Michigan is substantially different than using a gallon of radium-tainted groundwater from the Nevada desert.  The impact of using any single unit of water is really a combination of the volume of water used, the quality of the input and output water, and the relative scarcity of the water source in question.

All of this is explored further Growing Blue, a new web tool from Veolia that allows curious users to examine the state of water use, investment patterns, and infrastructure conditions (among many other things), in several U.S. cities and throughout the world.  For instance, the City of Chicago spends around $92 per resident per year on water-related capital expenses. Milwaukee is at $208, Boston is at $122, and Seattle is at $102.  That figure alone doesn't tell you much (perhaps we have fewer capital needs... though I doubt it), but Growing Blue does a great job of exploring the decisions ahead of us.  Namely, do we continue on our current path, or do we start getting serious about rethinking our use of water and energy?

Fortunately, we have several examples of large businesses doing the latter.  Robert Miller, Founder and President of Earthwise Environmental Inc., walked attendees through a case study of his firm's work with Northwestern University to reduce the water and energy footprint of its downtown Chicago hospital complex.  Earthwise examined opportunities to use existing technologies for steam plants, water heaters, and chillers, and to capture and reuse condensate from the buildings' cooling systems.  All told, the final installation of new technology totaled $1.5 million, but by saving 19 million gallons of water and about $750,000 a year, the project paid for itself in less than two years.  As energy, chemical, and labor costs increase, so will the cost of water, and that return on investment will continue to grow.

Over at Goose Island Beer Company, President and Founder John Hall and his team have increased total beer production while reducing water and energy consumption.  From 2010 to 2011, Goose Island used 1 million fewer gallons of water a year, 15 percent less gas, 5 percent less electricity, and discharged less cleaning solution to the sewer... all while making 15 percent more beer.  The gold standard for the beer-making industry is 3 units of input water to 1 unit of output beer, and while Goose Island is currently at 5:1, they are on a downward trend, with visions for a new, state-of-the-art Chicago brewery that will compete with the world's best for the smallest environmental footprint.

Benet Haller, Director of Urban Design and Planning for the City of Chicago Dept. of Housing and Economic Development, and the lead on the Chicago Sustainable Industries Strategy, discussed opportunities to share case studies such as those from Goose Island and Northwestern amongst a broader business community and scale those efforts up even further.  Most of Chicago's main industrial clusters—food production, paper and printing, metals, and textiles—are water-intensive, and with that comes the opportunity for greater stewardship.  

As the cost of water rises, so will the motivation to conserve, and having existing models will greatly speed the learning and implementation curve. From the Hyatt Regency to King Car Wash in Westmont, Ill., the good news is that the Chicago region has more and more of those models every day.

"Growing Blue: Water, Economic Development, and Corporate Stewardship," was graciously sponsored by Veolia Water, and is the most recent of a series of roundtables on water challenges facing the Chicago region.  Past roundtables have examined the need for better water data management and analysis, the water-energy nexus, water reuse policy, and the role of ecosystems and open spaces in groundwater management.

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