2012 will soon enter the record books as one of the hottest and driest years ever recorded across much of the continental U.S. The heat and drought took their toll on many Western states – where water scarcity is a constant and historic concern. And given a soaring global population, and the fact that nearly one out of every six people in the world doesn’t have access to safe drinking water, water sustainability is an issue that no nation, region or company can ignore if it wants to succeed.
Coca-Cola Refreshments water sustainability manager Jon Radtke understands how water touches all aspects of the company’s business. “It’s the main ingredient in virtually everything we make,” he says. “It’s an important component of our supply chain, specifically the agricultural ingredients. It’s also an important component for healthy communities – and we need to have healthy communities to have a healthy business.”
Coca-Cola has been a pioneer in water replenishment and watershed management projects, both at home and abroad. Since 2005 it’s been involved in 382 community water partnership projects.
In the United States, Coca-Cola works with a variety of partners on water restoration projects – including the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And, in the case of two projects – one in California and one in Colorado – the affected watersheds are also the source of water for Coca-Cola manufacturing plants.
Reviving Indian Valley
Coca-Cola has invested close to $200,000 in a watershed restoration project at Indian Valley, in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The meadow in Indian Valley is the birthplace of the Mokelumne River, which eventually supplies water to the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay and to Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in San Leandro. But the meadows have been degraded by more than a century of development and overgrazing.
“What’s happened is the streams that meander through the meadow have become incised,” says Radtke. “That means cut down very steep and eroded, and the meadow doesn’t store water like it used to. Instead, whenever it rains, most of the water just immediately flashes out of the meadow down the stream; similarly for the snowpack that occurs every year. Whenever they get the melt, that water just leaves the system very quickly.”
The project in Indian Valley uses what is known as a plug-and-pond method. By putting soil plugs in the stream and creating ponds behind those plugs, the meadow can once again hold water – which allows native vegetation to return and, in turn, helps to restore the local groundwater table.
“And then the meadow acts as a big sponge,” says Radtke. “So it seems like a very appropriate, applicable way to repair this type of impact on that meadow. What it’s going to do is improve the storage for the watershed. And even during the snow melt, [water] will stay up there longer. So during the dry periods of the year, it will continue to slowly feed the Mokelumne River, and it will feed the residents downstream.”
Long- and Short-Term Goals in Colorado
Coca-Cola is also partnering with the National Forest Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to improve the environment and water quality along Colorado’s South Platte River. Parts of that region were devastated 10 years ago by the notorious Hayman Fire, one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. The blaze blackened large swaths of land near metropolitan Denver, leaving the region’s Upper South Platte watershed – a watershed that provides more than 75 percent of Colorado’s water needs – vulnerable to widespread erosion and other environmental damage.
Volunteers from Coca-Cola and other organizations are improving water quality along the Upper South Platte – by planting trees, reseeding grassland and building erosion control structures there. The company has also been working with researchers in the state on long-term water replenishment technologies. Experts at Colorado State University (CSU) are involved in a variety of projects – including ways to conserve water used for agricultural purposes – thanks to contributions from Coca-Cola.
“In a semi-arid environment in Colorado, we irrigate all of our crops,” says Dr. James Pritchett, CSU associate professor of agriculture and resource economics, “and that [begins with] waters that start as snow in the Rocky Mountains and then flow into the South Platte watershed. And then farmers divert those waters in order to irrigate crops like corn and wheat and alfalfa hay. And that’s the same waters that the Denver [Coca-Cola] plant uses, once it goes through Denver water diversions, when they make their beverages.”
Dr. Pritchett says innovative crop rotations and specifically timed irrigations are helping to reduce the overall amount of water used for agriculture. And on a smaller scale, Coca-Cola is also enlisting CSU teachers and students to design and relandscape the grounds of the Denver plant. That project is expected to cut water usage for landscaping there by 50 percent.
The project “says a lot about Coca-Cola,” notes Zachary Johnson, associate professor with CSU’s department of horticulture and landscape architecture. “They’re making a significant investment on this facility. And my understanding is they’re going to continue to look at doing this [kind of project] at a large amount of facilities around the world.”
There are also plans to replenish all the water used annually by the Denver plant within the next year. That’s about 150 million liters of water, or enough to irrigate about 320 acres of cropland for a season.
And across the organization, Coca-Cola is committed to the goal of improving company water efficiency. It has already reached its 2012 goal to improve water use efficiency 20 percent, compared to 2004 data – and is establishing new goals for 2020.
Dr. Pritchett credits the company with showing a strong commitment to water sustainability. “They’re good stewards to the community,” he says. “Coca-Cola’s idea for replenishment really makes a lot of sense. If there’s a way that you can enhance the watershed and the management of water so that we can share water among competing uses, that’s pretty important. It’s not like there isn’t water that isn’t being used, you know. It’s all been allocated.”