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Collaborating with Environmental Defense Fund to Shrink Our Water Footprint

By: John Schulz, Director, AT&T Sustainability Operations

AT&T is working diligently to insulate our operations from increasing water scarcity and rising water costs. We’re focused on reducing our water use today.

JOHN SCHULZ Director, AT&T Sustainability Operations

Compared to other resources, water is relatively cheap, which is ironic considering that we literally can't live without it. It is a critical natural resource to ecological health, community vitality and business operations. As demand for water grows - 40 percent by 2030 by some estimates - and climate change impacts water availability, the financial cost of water will surely change. In the meantime, AT&T is working diligently to insulate our operations from increasing water scarcity and rising water costs. We're focused on reducing our water use today.

We are taking a comprehensive approach to reducing our 3.3 billion gallon water footprint by following a few basic guidelines.

  1. Think differently about the business case: Because water is so inexpensive today, it is difficult to build a compelling business case for water-efficiency investment. Our challenge is to identify ways to broaden the business case conversation to make it more financially compelling. The connection between water and electricity is fundamental to that thinking.
  2. Think locally: We evaluated regional differences in order to prioritize action, because compared to other resources and commodities, water is particularly shaped by region. We used tools like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's Water Tool and others to calculate water scarcity risk at our various facilities. Not only are water-stressed areas in the greatest need, but they also tend to be the most likely to have higher water prices, incentives or pending regulations, all of which impact the business case.
  3. Think about the big picture: We evaluated how we use water, including some of the "hidden" places it is used. For us, observable water uses such as in bathrooms and landscape irrigation are a smaller percentage of our water use and are relatively expensive to upgrade, making it a more difficult business case. In fact, we found that we would make a more compelling water-efficiency business case by focusing on the water that is intertwined with our energy usage in the building cooling process.

To that end, May 2012 saw the start of collaboration between Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and AT&T focused on reducing the amount of water used to keep large buildings cool. Cooling towers, which are often used to help chill large buildings, require large volumes of water - 25 percent of an office building's daily water use on average, but higher in buildings like data centers that have more heat-producing pieces of equipment than people. Together with EDF, we ran a series of pilots across the United States in 2012 to test ways to reduce water used in the cooling process through operational improvements, technical upgrades or switching to free air cooling. In some cases, the pilots didn't produce the results we had expected, but some results were very promising.

During this process, we've learned about the realities of rolling out a water management program and have developed several tools and resources that we've found useful. The fact is that the reduction potential that we've identified is a substantial savings when scaled across AT&T, but it could be a tremendous savings if achieved more broadly. That's why we're making our tools available to all organizations that could benefit from them. Over the course of 2013, EDF and AT&T will be distributing and promoting these tools to those building owners who have the opportunity to reduce water usage and costs. Visit www.edf.org/attwater to find tools that organizations can use to measure and manage their own water use.