Special Report | April 2012 | By Stephanie Ogburn

The State of Our Water

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Planning for the Future

Water is tied to everything. It affects energy costs, wholesale food prices, product availability, and utilities. Although it’s going to get scarcer, and drought is more likely, restaurant owners need not sit back and wring their hands, says Chris Moyer, a sustainability expert with the National Restaurant Association.

Moyer works within the industry to promote sustainable practices, and he’s seen a lot that’s hopeful in terms of water and energy conservation.

“The quick-service-restaurant industry has really stepped up to the plate,” Moyer says. “McDonald’s was an EPA Energy Star user a few years ago.”

Campbell Soup Company, which owns brands like Pace salsa, Prego, and many soup varieties used in foodservice, has tried to take the lead in sustainability issues, one of which is water conservation.

“We have a full water inventory of our manufacturing plants worldwide,” says Dave Stangis, the company’s vice president of corporate social responsibility. “We have set aggressive public goals to reduce the amount of water we use to make 1 ton of food by 50 percent by 2020.”

This effort has saved the company money, too. “Our investments in resource conservation since 2009 have saved more than $27 million,” Stangis says. Since 2009, when the company instituted water efficiency policies, it has used 1 billion fewer gallons of water yearly.

The NRA’s Moyer agrees that much of the effort is “bottom-line driven. … You already have a great audience when you show them that installing a $75 spray valve [on their dishwasher] will save them money,” he says.

Bon Appétit has a company-wide policy, part of its Low Carbon Diet program, that reduces water and energy use in its facilities. The company requires each on-site team, which usually consists of a chef and a general manager, to do an audit of their energy and water usage, and implement measures to conserve, says Helene York, the company’s director of strategic sourcing and research.

“The kind of things that we have asked them to do is adopt a mechanism on their sinks in their coffee bars that is sometimes called the Starbucks Solution,” York says. As the name implies, the strategy is named after the coffee giant, which instituted a similar water-saving mechanism in its coffee bars where, previously, water ran constantly.

York believes firmly in enlisting employees in company-wide efforts to save water.

“There is no question that when getting environmental responsibility to work, it has to be about training employees,” she says. “So if you just change a device and don’t train people how to use it, it doesn’t work nearly as efficiently as if you train them. But if you train them, they can be part of the solution. They can own it, they can feel proud.”

Restaurants can do their part to educate consumers, too, says Farm 255’s Sargeant. When areas are in a drought, a small sign in the bathroom reminding customers that water is scarce and not to leave the sink running can make a difference.

Yet there remain some factors that range far from owner control, from climate change–related drought to oil prices to a growing global population, whose demand for food leads to high commodity prices and food costs, says Bon Appétit’s York.

“Last year was the highest year on record for food inflation,” York says. “The question really is, what is that due to? I have no doubt that water issues had something to do with that.”

Online Tool Helps Growers Map Where Water Is

Scientists at the USDA are close to completing an online tool that will help farmers assess drought and irrigation impacts on crop development.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists Martha Anderson (right) and Bill Kustas (left) have developed an evapotranspiration (ET) and drought modeling system that uses satellite technology to identify drought-ridden areas across the globe.

The model, known as ALEXI (Atmosphere-Land Exchange Inverse), uses thermal infrared imagery from satellites to track soil and plant temperatures that can be used to create maps of plants growing in cultivated areas, forests, and natural habitats around the world.

For example, in wetland areas, plants and soils are covered with water that then evaporates into the air. That evaporation cools the land surface and indicates high ET rates. As a result, when satellites identify areas with high ET rates, they’re identified as wetter than those with lower ET rates.

That data is then compiled to create ET maps, which detect rivers, lakes, wetlands, riparian buffers, irrigated cropland, and areas under water stress.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is funding the research, plans to use the system to generate ET estimates over the continental U.S., a project that will be particularly helpful to growers in areas such as the Texas Panhandle, the Florida Everglades, and the southwestern U.S.

Although getting routine ET estimates for individual fields is laborious, the researchers hope to move toward routine mapping at a “field scale” soon.

ALEXI has been estimating ET rates since 2000, but the researchers continue to refine the system and plan to make the maps available online soon on the U.S. Drought Portal at www.drought.gov.

Anderson and Kustas’ project supports the USDA priority of responding to climate change, but it also will likely shift the way growers plan and cultivate their crops—a step that could lead to more stable commodities prices in the future.

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