Press Release – Atlanta Journal – Constitution Opinion Editorial

Atlanta Journal – Constitution Opinion Editorial 

Businesses can play a lead role in Atlanta’s water management
By Darrell Thomas
7:23 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Georgia seems to be drowning in water troubles. The legal dispute and continuing negotiations over Lake Lanier reveal the layers of complexity and consequence associated with water policy decisions in our state, but also across the region.

Population growth, aging infrastructure, climate change and increasing environmental concerns are affecting our relationship with water, requiring that we understand and act with much greater visibility into the long-term impact of our water management decisions.

Georgia is already taking positive steps to address these challenges. Last fall, the state’s Water Contingency Task Force — a consortium of business, government and environmental leaders — convened to research and identify practical solutions to the state’s water crisis. Several of their recommendations, which call for greater water conservation, will be turned into real action under the recently passed Water Stewardship Act of 2010.

But smarter water management isn’t just the responsibility of citizens, government agencies and utility companies — it’s critical to businesses, too.

IBM recently conducted a survey of more than 100 U.S. public- and private-sector executives who revealed some alarming concerns about their future water challenges. Nearly 77 percent of those surveyed consider water management “extremely important” to their business, and 71 percent expect water management to increase in cost and complexity over the next five years. Yet, more than 50 percent said they lack formal water management policies and tools, and 63 percent lack information management systems needed to deal with the water issues they face.

It takes more than 2 gallons of water to make a sheet of paper, 24 for a pound of plastic and 2,600 for a single pair of jeans. How can businesses play a bigger role in managing this critical natural resource?

To start, we can cut costs and consumption by researching manufacturing practices, identifying where improvements can be made, and encouraging employees to reduce their usage in offices.

In 2008, IBM introduced the Green Sigma program, which, based on the widely used Lean Six Sigma approach of analyzing and optimizing business operations, helps companies use water and energy more efficiently, reduce costs and lower their environmental impact.

Consider Starbucks, where water is a key input in producing its products and operating its stores. To reduce its water usage, the company emphasizes water-saving technology in its equipment specifications, and last year, started implementing operational alternatives to its dipper well system for utensils. Efficient dishwashers, high-pressure spray arms, and employee education are just some of the ways Starbucks is reducing its water consumption.

Companies should also seek opportunities to form partnerships similar to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. Formed in 2006, the organization brings together leading beverage companies — including Coca-Cola, Diageo, Nestle, Anheuser-Busch InBev and PepsiCo — to share best practices on water reduction and reuse, drought preparedness and stewardship.

As these efforts illustrate, smarter water management is emerging as an essential piece in the sustainable growth strategy for companies and the cities in which they operate. And it begins with businesses and individuals simply having greater visibility into their water use.

Better monitoring allows for better management, and we now have the tools to make it possible. Sensor networks are revolutionizing agriculture, providing detailed information on air quality, soil moisture content and temperature to calculate optimal irrigation schedules. Smart water meters can give customers timely data on their water use, helping raise awareness, locate inefficiencies like a leaky pipe, and decrease demand. And data analytics can provide predictive capabilities that support better-informed water policies.

Beyond collecting and converting water data into actionable intelligence, we also need to share it. Collaboration is a key success factor in smarter water management, and Georgia’s Water Contingency Task Force is a model for how it can drive consensus and innovative solutions.

Today, management of water resources is spread across different departments in businesses and different organizations across the region. We need to facilitate improved collaboration and information transparency among these groups by providing leadership and a platform that gives all stakeholders an integrated set of tools and the data necessary to make water management decisions on a systemwide level.

Changes in our attitude about water and in our systems for managing it must be made; it’s just a question of when and how.

The time for Georgia is now. If we wait too long, our traditional water sources may fall short of our needs.

Together, let’s stop taking water for granted, and start managing it as the precious resource it is.

Darrell Thomas, a managing consultant with IBM Professional Services, has lived in the Atlanta area since 1987.

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