“Water is the driving force of all nature.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Even in the 1400s without the access and knowledge we have today, the importance of water was clear, the relationship to life apparent. Water is the most abundant molecule found in living organisms. About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Given the abundance of water on earth, some wonder about the growing focus on water conservation and availability across Texas and globally.
Melissa Alderson, Conservation Education Manager at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department broke it down well in a podcast given in December 2020: “Of all the water found on earth, ninety-seven percent is saltwater. If you’re doing the math, that means just three percent of all water is freshwater. But, eighty percent of that water is frozen in the Polar Ice Caps and unavailable for our use; so what we’re left with, then, is just one half of one percent for our use. And let’s not forget that we have to share that tiny amount of fresh water with nearly eight billion human beings and nearly nine million animal species – how many individual creatures that actually represents is anyone’s guess.”
Fresh water is critical AND if we do not adopt a regenerative approach, fresh water will become more scarce as our population continues to grow. 81 million people were added to the planet in 2020. As global, national, state, and local leaders address population growth and resource needs, it’s imperative that we bring corporate, conservation, and community efforts together to adopt proven practices in water management.
Fortunately, we have many resources available and efforts focused on sustainable water management. The broadest in scope is The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. The Agenda lays out 17 sustainable development goals known as the UN SDGs. These focus on a global plan for ending poverty and improving health, education, prosperity, and the planet. Water is specifically called out in multiple goals and a critical component to others. These guiding goals can act as a framework for the growing corporate focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). It’s a blueprint for strategists and a common language for leaders across sectors.
The increased corporate focus on ESG, ushered in by brands like Patagonia, vocal investors, and a changing workforce is changing the sustainability conversation in all industries. Announcements are in the press daily with a wide array of targets, viewpoints, and claims. According to investment-management firm Pimco, “Environmental, social, and governance issues were discussed on about a fifth of earnings calls across the world” in 2021. This is up from ESG mentions on 5% of calls in 2019. Every industry is entering into the conversation from energy to capital markets to agriculture to tourism.
With an increased focus on ESG and specifically, corporate water goals, the opportunity for corporate + conservation + community collaboration is growing daily. Conservation groups can provide the expertise and communities the land to develop and implement Nature Based Solutions (NBS) to achieve a sustainable state of water use / regeneration. Nature Based Solutions are broadly defined as sustainable solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience. Specifically they are actions that involve the protection, restoration or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; the sustainable management of aquatic systems and working lands such as croplands or timberlands; or the creation of novel ecosystems in and around cities. These solutions provide improved water flow, water quality, air quality, biodiversity, tourism and sporting benefits, and more for growing communities. As industry and communities set higher goals for water sustainability, local conservation and nature based solutions should be a key piece within ESG strategy. There’s a growing list of replicable examples including constructed wetlands, prairie wetlands, restored playas, and reforestation.
- A constructed wetland is a wastewater treatment system that mimics and improves the effectiveness of the processes that help to purify water similar to naturally occurring wetlands. Constructed wetlands can be used for either secondary or tertiary wastewater treatment.
- Key benefits:
- Provide raw water and improve water quality through natural treatment mechanisms powered by sunlight, wind, plants, and microbes
- Remove sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus from the water, provide wildlife habitat, and create areas for education and recreation
- If location and planning permits, a constructed wetland is a cost-effective alternative to building a new reservoir and pushes back the need to construct additional water supply projects
- Additional Resources:
- 2018 Conservation Wranglers – TRWD & NTMWD’s Constructed Wetlands in North Texas
- Constructed Wetlands Projects by Plummer
- Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems: Constructed Wetlands for Domestic Use
- Demonstration/Evaluation of Constructed Wetlands as an Alternative On-Site Waste Water Treatment System
- Trinity River Education Guide
- Of the 254 counties in Texas, 28 along the Texas coast contain hundreds of thousands of acres of crucial natural infrastructure. Often called “Kidneys of the landscape,” Texas’s coastal wetlands take the form of potholes, ponds, swamps, ephemeral lakes, and marshes – some permanent, some seasonal – and they provide crucial habitat to millions of migrating and resident birds each year. Although heavily impacted by development and agriculture, landowners are working with biologists to restore wetlands along the coast, reaping the benefits of stormwater storage, greater water quality, reduced sedimentation, and improved economic outcomes for both agricultural and recreational land uses. Corporate funders and land increase the restoration rate of these wetlands and achieve multiple ESG goals including water impact, biodiversity, and local economic development.
- Key benefits:
- Provide critical staging and wintering habitat for thousands of waterfowl and migrating birds
- Reduce and mitigate the effects of stormwaters, especially during large weather events such as hurricanes
- Naturally filter water, removing harmful runoff, improving water quality, and reducing sedimentation
- Support the $4.2B hunting and fishing industry
- Additional Resources:
- Across the Texas panhandle, thousands of recharge points for the Ogallala aquifer dot the landscape. Called playas, they are shallow, ephemera pools with clay soil basins that crack as evaporation dries them out. When it rains, these pools fill and water seeps through the clay to recharge the aquifer, until the clay fully saturates, sealing the bottom and filling the pool. When playas are full, they provide water and habitat to wildlife, including millions of migrating birds each year. Playas are critical to maintaining enough aquifer recharge to sustain human life and activity in the Texas Panhandle. Simple restoration techniques – often filling pits or removing built up sediments – allow playas to return to their natural function. Landowners are incentivized by programs such as the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative to restore these playas, generating valuable income and maintaining life-sustaining natural resources. Corporate partners are funding or performing restoration to achieve water reduction goals.
- Key playa benefits:
- Playas provide recharge to the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the United States and the largest water source to residents in the Texas Panhandle
- Functioning playas natural filter water, ensuring higher quality and quantity in the recharge
- Whether wet or dry, playas provide thousands of acres of habitat for birds and other wildlife year-round
- Additional Resources:
- Forest land is known to cover 62.42 million acres in Texas, totaling 36 percent of our state’s area. Watersheds are known to be regulated by nearby forests through various hydrological processes such as water infiltration, runoff and erosion reduction, water filtration, and flood control and storm protection through water regulation and disturbance prevention. Due to trees’ large, woody roots and their ability to absorb water in various ways, they are nature’s sponges and help maintain releases of water into streams and rivers, effectively maintaining water quality and quantity. Reforestation globally is a known option for carbon sequestration. Pairing the carbon benefit with water outcomes is an opportunity for many communities and industries to surpass goals.
- Key Benefits:
- Enhanced water filtration in key riparian buffer zones thus decreasing water treatment costs and enhancing the quality of drinking water
- Increased water infiltration and runoff reduction due to afforestation and strategic forest management techniques
- Creation of areas for education, wildlife habitat, recreation, and carbon capture through a nature-based solution
- If location and planning permits, afforestation surrounding riparian buffers can be a cost-effective strategy for water quality management and reduces the need for water treatment
- Additional Resources:
- Long Leaf Pine: A tall drink of water
- World Resources Institute: 3 Surprising Ways Water Depends on Healthy Forests
- Texas Forests Infographic
- US Forest Service: Guide to Watershed Investment Partnerships
- EcoMetrics: Planting trees and sowing seeds: 4 tenets of a powerful, public-private climate alliance
While sustainability and conservation can seem like a confusing alphabet soup of competing frameworks and options, there are many examples of collaborative efforts that address long term goals in water and additional focus areas like carbon and biodiversity. Learning from, replicating, and funding these solutions will increase the trajectory of progress for industry and communities alike. Creating strategies that include this type of industry, conservation, and community collaboration will lead to truly regenerative practices and address broader ESG and UN SDG frameworks. There’s no better time to start than today. After all, water is the driving force of all nature – our future depends on its care.