The business of water

The issue of water supply - without which humans cannot grow food, generate energy or even live - has received scant attention in recent years.

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By Richard McGill Murphy, editor, FSB

LAGUNA NIGUEL, CALIF. (Fortune) -- The cup of coffee I drank this morning required 37 gallons of water to produce. In the United States, 35 out of 50 U.S. states will face water shortages in the near future. Even as drought and desertification inflict international misery, the world's five largest beverage companies collectively use enough water to satisfy the needs of the entire planet.

These are just some of the lugubrious statistics that emerged from a panel discussion on the Business of Water at Fortune magazine's annual Brainstorm: Green conference in southern California today. Panelists included Rich Lechner, vice president for energy and environment at IBM (IBM, Fortune 500); venture capitalist Warren Weiss of Foundation Capital in Menlo Park, Calif.; and Chris Spain, chairman and chief strategy officer at HydroPoint Data Systems, a startup that sells smart irrigation technology out of Petaluma, Calif.

Humans can't grow food, generate energy or even live for very long without water. But the panelists agreed that water issues have received scant attention in recent years, at least compared to the renewable energy discussions that have dominated the conference so far.

"We have great water technology coming out of labs and government agencies," said Weiss. "But there's zero political alignment - no local government official is going to get fired for not improving the local water infrastructure."

There was some good news amid the gloom. Like many large corporations, IBM has made a concerted effort to reduce water consumption at its facilities around the world, Lechner said. He cited IBM's water-intensive chip fabrication plants, which have managed to reduce their annual water consumption by 6% in recent years.

At other end of the corporate spectrum, HydroPoint has made significant progress in helping U.S. companies reduce their water footprints. Spain noted that 60% of urban water consumption goes to outdoor irrigation. Fully 30% of that water is wasted because of inefficient irrigation technology, the problem that HydroPoint was founded to remedy.

Subscribers to HydroPoint's WeatherTRAK water management system will save 11.3 billion gallons of water, 45 million kilowatt hours and 60 million pounds of CO2 this year, according to the company's Web site.

Perhaps the most practical suggestion at the breakfast panel came from a waiter employed by the Ritz-Carlton hotel where the conference is being held. The waiter pointed out that hotels and restaurants waste massive quantities of water by automatically placing full glasses of water at every place setting.

In response to his suggestion, the panelists and audience members signed an impromptu petition urging the Ritz-Carlton to implement an "only when asked" water pouring policy at all its restaurants. To top of page

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