By Kirsten James
Long before the California drought became a national crisis, multinational berry company Driscoll's knew it had to organize a solution to the water problem its grower partners were facing.
Groundwater was being over-pumped in its major California growing region in the Pajaro Valley, and as a result saltwater was seeping into farmers' wells from nearby Monterey Bay, threatening berry growers and other farmers in the valley.
Finding another sourcing region was not an option for Driscoll's, even though the company represents community growers in 21 countries around the world.
“There's a very specific climate for strawberries," said Driscoll's then-CEO Miles Reiter at a drought forum last year. “… and none of the growing environments is quite as perfect as California. That means we need to fix the water situation."
And that's what Driscoll's set out to do. In 2010, it launched the Community Water Dialogue, a bold public/private partnership with local landowners, growers and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz. The dialogue brought disparate and often competing factions together to forge collaborative efforts to solve the valley's water woes.
Driscoll's is one of a growing number of companies with large water footprints that are striving to be part of the solution in solving local and global water scarcity challenges. They're beginning to collaborate at the watershed level in their sourcing regions. They're enlisting their employees, supply chains and consumers in their conservation efforts, and they're even stepping into the policy arena to advocate resilient water solutions, such as through Ceres' Connect the Drops campaign in California.
Today, at a World Water Day Summit, the White House is recognizing Connect the Drops and its five newest members—Anheuser-Bush InBev, Annie's, Eileen Fisher, Kellogg Company and Xylem—for their contributions toward building a sustainable water future in California and beyond.
Like Driscoll's, Anheuser-Bush InBev, whose brands include Budweiser and Stella Artois, is collaborating with stakeholders in the communities where it operates. The beer giant has worked to improve its water efficiency and management, reducing its water usage rate by 23 percent from 2009 through 2015 in the U.S. resulting in water savings of more than 2.5 billion gallons.
Among its many water saving initiatives, it reuses its effluent, reclaimed water, in auxiliary operations to reduce needs from local sources in many breweries such as its Los Angeles brewery, and supplies its effluent to local communities at nearly 40 of its breweries globally for agricultural irrigation, watering public parks and soccer fields, street cleaning, fire-fighting and other community needs replacing the fresh water that would otherwise be used.
Other companies, like Levi Strauss & Co., are engaging their peers in water cutting initiatives. Today the iconic jeans brand is making its innovative Water<Less finishing techniques publicly available to spur water conservation across the apparel industry. The techniques reduce water use in garment finishing by up to 96 percent and have helped the company save more than one billion liters of water since 2011—or the equivalent to 10.56 million 10-minute showers.
Levi Strauss & Co. also engages it consumers in water conservation because its water footprint analyses show that of the nearly 3,800 liters of water used in the lifecycle of a pair of jeans, consumer care has the second-highest impact on consumption, after cotton. In order to help consumers better understand their environmental impact, LS&Co. created the “Are You Ready to Come Clean" quiz.
But are the collective actions and policy advocacy of these companies making a difference in California?
Steven Moore, a member of the California State Water Resources Control Board, thinks so. “Businesses have a unique bully pulpit to put pressure on policy makers," he said. "More and more we need that voice at the table as we contemplate sustainable water policy."
In 2014, for example when Driscoll's Reiter spoke out in favor of California's historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, it helped to break the logjam in the state to pass the critical bill.
Looking ahead, there are still a number of critical policies that California needs to put in place in order to right many years of unsustainable water use.
One such policy is removing perceived barriers created by Prop 218 to implementing tiered water pricing, a system for charging water guzzlers increasingly higher prices at higher volumes of water use. Tiered pricing can be very effective at incentivizing water conservation.
Another is AB 1755, which proposes to bring California closer to having good water data, and being able to act on it. The proposed legislation would create an online water data information system that could set the stage for a well-functioning water market in California.
And for California's critical groundwater reform to move forward, sustainability plans must be developed at the sub-basin level. Food companies that source from California's fertile agricultural lands can and should help to develop and implement those plans, following Driscoll's lead in the Pajaro Valley.
As increasingly more companies realize the critical role the can and must play in the effort to create a sustainable water future, I believe that we will make great strides. As General Mill's Ellen Silva put it, “We firmly believe that in order for Californian citizens, businesses, farmers and the ecosystem to thrive, we must all work together to manage the water supply sustainably."
Kirsten James oversees the California policy program at Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization. She directs Connect the Drops, a network of California businesses seeking smart policies and solutions to ensure a sustainable water future in California and is former science and policy director at the Santa Monica-based environmental group, Heal the Bay.
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Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>