Intel promises to restore 100 percent of its water use. What does that mean?

Kimberly Schonek of the Nature Conservancy crosses another section of the ditch. (Photo by Bret Jaspers, KJZZ)

PHOENIX – You may be familiar with carbon offsets, where companies or schools try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one area to make up for emissions elsewhere. More and more, corporations are also trying to offset the water they use.

Intel, for one, announced a water restoration goal last year: to restore a hundred percent of its direct global water use by 2025. They employ about 10,000 in the Phoenix area and have offices around the world.

The company said it already restores about 80 percent of the water they use , and it’s funding projects to make up for that final 20 percent.

One of those projects brought Intel to West Clear Creek, about two hours northeast of Phoenix.

On a warm morning this summer, Kimberly Schonek, Verde River Program Director at the environmental group Nature Conservancy, drove past farm fields bordered by a humming stream. “As you can see, West Clear Creek is flowing today,” she pointed out. “And the reason that it’s flowing is we’ve had lots of monsoons.”

The Nature Conservancy, with Intel and other money, is laying pipe to replace the earthen ditch that diverts creek water to nearby farm fields. A pipe will save the water that’s now seeping into the ground. The saved water can then remain in the creek and make its way to the Verde River.

“If you can put infrastructure in place that reduces [the farmers’] demand for how it gets from the river to their farm, then you’re saving water in that reach of the river,” Schonek explained.

This diversion ditch carries water from West Clear Creek, northeast of Phoenix, to nearby farm fields. Upon completion of a project partly funded by Intel, the Nature Conservancy will have replaced the unlined ditch with pipe. (Photo: Bret Jaspers, KJZZ)

Upon completion, Intel can apply some of the saved water towards its restoration goal. The company is trying to be “water neutral,” so to speak, and has hired an outside engineering firm to help calculate exact progress toward its restoration goal.

“For us, it’s part of our business strategy to make sure that we have access to water,” said Fawn Bergen, Global Sustainability Program Manager at Intel. “But it is broader than that. It’s also our commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility. It’s not just like a transaction.”

Water is a rising concern for many companies, according to Cate Lamb, Director of Water Security at the environmental nonprofit CDP, which pushes for corporate data disclosure.

“We’re seeing certain organizations and many, many companies facing the reality that that stable supply of water that they need for their business can no longer be guaranteed in many regions,” Lamb said.

Lamb acknowledged, however, that there isn’t one universal standard for what a company is responsible for. Intel’s restoration goal is based on the water it directly uses at its sites. The company isn’t trying to restore the water used in its supply chain – at least not yet. The computer chip maker says it monitors suppliers in other ways to encourage good water practices.

That’s not an acceptable answer to Rick Hogeboom, the Executive Director of the Water Footprint Network. He describes the supply chain as “something that many companies are fully unaware of, and also don’t feel very responsible for.”

The Water Footprint Network, a non-profit, came up with a specific metric for calculating the water in a company’s “footprint.” It includes water taken from various sources as well as the water needed to dilute discharges safely into the environment. Hogeboom said without accounting for the water in the supply chain, you don’t get the whole picture of a product.

“I think it’s very important to have this one framework so that we know that we are on the same page, and not have these semantic discussions all the time,” he said.

And yet others caution not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. John Sabo, Director of Future H2O at Arizona State University, said standards by themselves will not change water practices.

“You need a leader like a Coca-Cola, like an Intel, who’s gonna go out [and] invest money outside their four walls,” said Sabo, who has worked as an unpaid consultant with Coca-Cola on water sustainability issues. He said leading companies can “influence other players who may have more money, like other companies and the public sector.”

Lamb agreed, but emphasized that the investors she works with do want real effort made to improve water security.

“At the moment, because there is this lack of standardized approaches and standard definitions of what this looks like, it’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s almost like that’s the next frontier that we’re exploring as a community.”

As water stress increases around the world, water use may move from the frontier of the conversation to the center.