The Business of Water

Conference draws Colorado River stakeholders to Denver for water sustainability summit

Colorado River by Justin BailieBy Eugene Buchanan

What was OARS founder and president George Wendt doing on the 38th floor of Denver’s Grand Hyatt the day after the government shutdown ended, and his company was scrambling to resume raft trips on the Grand Canyon and other closed waterways? He was doing his part to ensure something even more important than river access … the business of water.

Wendt was a panelist at the first ever Business of Water summit, hosted by nonprofit Protect the Flows, a group of nearly 1,000 businesses focused on the issue of water sustainability and responsible water consumption policies. On hand to hear keynote talks from the likes of U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) were representatives from utility companies, outfitters, marina operators and more than 35 corporations, including PepsiCo, AT&T, MGM Resorts International and New Belgium Brewing Co. sharing practices aimed at sustainable water management.

“We had to refund a lot of money from the shutdown,” said Wendt, “but water is the lifeblood of our business. We need it. We don’t consume it, but rely on it for all our operations.”

The Colorado River was recently named the most endangered river in America. Participating businesses, said Protect the Flows co-director Craig Mackey, have a vital stake in solutions to best manage the river’s widening supply and demand gap.

“The purpose of the summit is threefold,” he said. “It’s to build a forum for business leaders to network and engage on water sustainability, share business best practices, case studies and tools to promote water efficiency and conservation, and create a strong business voice and platform to advance water policy to incentivize water innovation, efficiency and conservation.”

The Colorado River, he added, is a major economic driver which, if it were a company, would rank at number 155 on Fortune 500 list, ahead of General Mills, and be the country’s 19th largest employer. It supports nearly 250,000 jobs in six states, produces $26 billion in economic output, contributes $3.2 billion in annual taxes and creates $10.4 billion in  annual earnings, salaries and wages. The recently completed Colorado River Basin Study shows that water conservation efforts can yield at least 3 million acre feet of water and is the most cost-effective and easily implementable way to bring water supply and demand on the Colorado back into balance.

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Keynoting the conference was Sen. Udall, whose constituents have a vested interest in its preservation. “I’m encouraged to see these major companies across a variety of industries recognize the critical need for water sustainability and invest into reducing their water footprint,” said Udall, who recently chaired a hearing on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Study and is a member of the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. “The strategies proposed here, which include reducing demand through innovation, conservation and better management of supply, will help us prepare for the future and reduce the river basin’s vulnerabilities. We need to make every drop count.”

Other presenters sharing programs and technologies designed to manage industrial, urban and agricultural water consumption in the face of diminishing water supplies included by New Belgium Brewing Company, PepsiCo, American Water, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company, and Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the United States’ largest park concessions management company.

“We wouldn’t be in business without water in the Colorado River,” adds Wendt, echoing the sentiments of all of those in attendance.

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