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Watershed Protection Comes From Corporate Partners

Coca-Cola is backing efforts to help restore key watersheds in southern California, signaling a new era in corporate water stewardship, writes Kirsten James, who oversees the California policy program at Ceres.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Obama national monument
President Barack Obama speaks at the Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif., Oct. 10, 2014. Obama designated the nearly 350,000 acres (142,000 hectares) within the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles a national monument.Evan Vucci, AP

One-third of Los Angeles County residents and businesses get their water from the San Gabriel watershed – a region that stretches from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino. The rivers and creeks that flow out of the San Gabriel Mountains recharge the local groundwater aquifers and provide an important water source for the millions of people who live downstream.

But the watershed, which provides Los Angeles County with 70 percent of its open space and roughly 35 percent of its water, is in trouble – because of drought and the effect of the 3 million visitors drawn annually to the San Gabriel Mountains for fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities. The Forest Service does not have the resources to keep up with demand, and the once-bountiful region is vulnerable to trash, crowding, wildfires and heavy foot traffic, which can impede the watershed’s ability to recharge.

Building on earlier efforts, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) launched the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Fund in 2015 to expand critical restoration and stewardship projects for the region. Just last year, President Obama declared the region a national monument, permanently protecting the popular outdoor recreation destination.

Many companies have since thrown their support behind NFF’s mission, including Coca-Cola. Like many local businesses, production facilities and millions of residents in greater Los Angeles, the company depends on the San Gabriel watershed.

It’s no secret that Coca-Cola uses a lot of water to produce its beverages – including its popular water brand, Dasani. The water used to make the products is locally sourced, bottled and distributed by facilities in Downey and Los Angeles. Every 33 fl oz (1 liter) of beverage produced requires approximately 57 fl oz (1.7 liters) of water (in the U.S.). But faced with a changing world, the company has taken steps to reduce its water footprint, such as aiming to improve water efficiency in manufacturing operations by 25 percent by 2020 compared with a 2010 baseline, and by returning as much water to nature as it uses, by 2020.

The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains look over Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. The mountains are a critical watershed for the L.A. area. (Nick Ut, AP)

The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains look over Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. The mountains are a critical watershed for the L.A. area. (Nick Ut, AP)

Representing a next level in corporate water stewardship, Coca-Cola is partnering with government and the local community. It demonstrates how corporate America can help tackle challenging water issues.

Coca-Cola has invested $930,000 in restoring a portion of the San Gabriel watershed, establishing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Forest Service to invest in riparian restoration by working with the service’s local office as well as youth conservation corps.

Coca-Cola’s financial support, and volunteer teams, have helped remove Arundo donax, or giant cane, an invasive plant in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers that sucks up five times more water than native species. The success of these efforts translates to 129 million gallons (490 million liters) of “replenished water” – worth nearly 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Coca-Cola has also supported NFF and the Forest Service for mountain meadow restoration and stream channel improvements, the effects of which total more than 265 million gallons (1 billion liters) of water back to nature.

Such watershed restoration alleviates some of the pressure on the strained Colorado River, which provides drinking water for some 19 million of California’s 39 million residents. California currently uses nearly one-third of the entire river’s flow, but it may well face steep cuts to its supply in the near future. Lake Mead, the reservoir storing southern California’s share of the Colorado, reached its lowest point since 1937 this year, and experts say there is a 64 percent chance the water level in Lake Mead will drop low enough to trigger a federal emergency provision by 2019.

Restoring more watersheds like San Gabriel can help California recharge local aquifers and maximize its water supplies to better ensure a more sustainable water future, with reduced needs for imports from afar.

Corporate investment in the San Gabriel watershed restoration project reflects the next level of water stewardship. It’s not enough for companies to focus only on water conservation within their own four walls. Engaging at the watershed level and working collaboratively with other stakeholders is what will make a significant difference for generations to come.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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