CWAC Enhances a World-Class Education in Water Stewardship

By Adrienne Gifford, Global Head of Sustainability, Olam Spices

Not having grown up in California, when I moved to Fresno two years ago to take my current position as Global Head of Sustainability for Olam Spices, I was both surprised and thrilled when I learned that my new home - the Central Valley of California - is one of the world’s most productive agriculture regions. 

Using less than 1% of U.S. farmland, the Central Valley produces more than 250 different crops – comprising 25% of the U.S. total food production, including 40% of the nation's fruits, nuts, and other table foods*. (*Source: https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html)

But perhaps more surprising, was the fact that this food production still manages to occur in a drought-prone region. When I arrived in March 2017, the Central Valley was experiencing a desperately needed once-in-100-year rain… finally relief from the 2011-2017 drought – the worst California has experienced in 1,200 years. For large agri-businesses such as Olam, water security is therefore a business imperative and along with our contracted growers - we must make tough choices around usage. 

Water stewardship begins with the quality of the seed planted in the ground, extends through the cultivation and processing of the crop, and goes beyond what we do within our own four walls. It often means trial, error and a wholesale re-imagining of agriculture!

The team here is proud to have bred the world’s highest solid-content onion allowing for a reduction of approximately 7.12bn gallons of water over the last 10 years! It goes without saying that Olam and our contracted growers employ the most advanced agtech solutions including GPS, soil moisture sensors, imaging, and highly automated drip irrigation systems. And our customers are interested in the results – they want to know that their products have the smallest footprint possible. Through our sustainable sourcing solution AtSource customers can track the environmental footprint – including water use – from our farms to their doorstep; and through this insight, help us shape real change on the ground, particularly in terms of addressing the wider needs of the landscape. And here I must give a shout out to many of the farmers and growers who don’t get enough credit for the efforts they make.

Take Bowles Farming Company – a contracted supplier to Olam Spices. This leading edge farm invests its profits to help manage the second largest contiguous wetlands in the U.S., providing habitat for migratory waterfowl. They have also restored over 6 miles of native riparian area around the farm; and planted and irrigated hundreds of acres of native plant species such as the milkweed to provide habitat for endangered species like the monarch butterfly.  

Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch, another contracted grower for Olam Spices, is implementing a grant from the California Department of Water Resources, matched by major investment by the farm -  to build infrastructure to capture and distribute floodwater to support on-farm groundwater re-charge. When the project is completed, Terranova will be able to recharge 1,000-acre feet (1-acre foot = 325,851 gallons or 1,233.48 cubic meters) of water per day. 

But Olam and our farmers – or any organization - cannot do it alone.  Water stewardship is complex, and solutions are challenging and as illustrated in previous examples - expensive to implement. We must support our farmers to create impact at scale. This is where alliances like the California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC) can offer good frameworks and support. 

Over the past two and half years, I have had an amazing opportunity to participate in and support the on-going development of the CWAC. As a sustainability professional, trying to navigate the maze of water policy changes and hydrological events in California would be overwhelming without CWAC’s group of experts to make sense of it all.  

Collaborating to access their insight into the legal and regulatory environment, as well as the workings of natural ecosystems, means we can learn how our water usage affects everyone and everything around us.

From researching relevant projects, to defining the methodologies for assessment, the groundwork is laid for us to focus on driving net-positive impact in the communities where we’re operating and directly impacting water availability. 

Over the past 5 years, Olam has contributed to the development of the CWAC, supporting collective action projects such as the Corporate Water Stewardship and California Water Action Plan. 

Last fall, Olam Spices hosted the bi-annual meeting at our Fresno headquarters, helping to organize a “learning journey” for CWAC members to trace water from its source in the Sierra Nevada Mountain headwaters to the crop fields, factories, and residential users in the Valley below.

This journey created awareness among leading corporates and NGOs of the importance of the health of our national forests, meadows, and conveyance infrastructure in ensuring the availability and quality of water for all users in the state.

I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with world-class farmers and participate in CWAC. My experiences have provided me with the knowledge, tools, and resources to develop strategies within our supply chains for Olam to improve our water stewardship. And it has opened my eyes about how we all need to play our part and move beyond our own four walls.  

Collective action on water stewardship programmes - with our farmers, our peers, NGOs and finance institutions - is critical, in order to scale up impact through shared expertise and resource. Collaboration at the local, regional and national levels of the water basin is the only way to affect meaningful change.


Climate Resilience in the Urban Context: Sustainable Landscapes for Southern California Businesses

The Pacific Institute, in collaboration with the CEO Water Mandate, California Forward, and Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, released a new report, “Sustainable Landscapes on Commercial and Industrial Properties in the Santa Ana River Watershed,” accompanied by an interactive online map.

This report and map  represent phase one of a CWAC collective action project, supported by CWAC members Coca-Cola, Netafim, and Nestle Waters North America. With the release of the report, Pacific Institute and partners are  are now launching into phase two, for which we are actively recruiting more companies (within and beyond CWAC) to participate.

Through sustainable landscapes, we can improve the resilience of our cities.

Around the world, communities are facing water-related crises at an unprecedented scale. Two of the top five global risks identified by the World Economic Forum for 2019 are extreme weather events and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, both of which have direct ties to water. Extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, manifests through water – storms, floods, and droughts. Adapting to these new extremes will require rethinking our water management systems, including the way we design our urban areas to interact with water.

The combination of continued growth and climate change puts California cities at a critical nexus for water and climate resilience. Yet, California’s urban landscapes are not designed for resilience; they are characterized by vast expanses of thirsty lawns and impermeable pavement. Fortunately, more sustainable options exist, and implementing them can provide tangible benefits to individual properties and to local communities.

The new report examines the benefits and opportunities of installing sustainable landscapes on commercial and industrial (CI) properties, with a focus on the Santa Ana River Watershed in California. It also explores barriers to more widespread uptake of such landscapes by companies, coupled with recommendations for overcoming these barriers and scaling the approach. While focused on the Santa Ana River Watershed, the approach and methodology can be replicated elsewhere, and it is our hope to scale this work to other regions. Here is a snapshot of some of the key findings:

Sustainable landscape practices provide multiple benefits.

‘Sustainable landscapes’ are in balance with local climate and ecology and actively contribute to watershed health by providing economic, social, and environmental benefits. This report focused on five sustainable landscape practices:

  1. Turf replacement;

  2. Bioswales and rain gardens;

  3. Permeable pavement;

  4. Green roofs; and

  5. Rain tanks and cisterns.

These landscape practice can make substantial contributions toward improved surface water quality, flood management, and water supply reliability. They can also reduce energy usage and associated greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, improve ecosystem and human health, promote economic activity, and enhance community resilience.

Businesses stand to gain from investing in sustainable landscapes.

In addition to the broad-reaching water security and climate resiliency benefits that sustainable landscapes can create, businesses stand to gain directly from investments in sustainable landscape practices. Through surveys and interviews with Southern California businesses, we found that these can include, but are not limited to:

  • Financial considerations: Sustainable landscape practices can provide financial benefits through, for example, reduced water, energy and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs.

  • Corporate sustainability goals: A growing number of companies have adopted sustainability goals and investing in sustainable landscapes can help contribute these, particularly to water and energy targets.

  • Reputation and public perception: Converting to a sustainable landscape is a highly visible way for a business to signal their commitment to sustainability to customers and the local community, as well as to investors and peer companies.

  • Social responsibility: Companies are increasingly recognizing the water-related risks facing their business operations and their communities. While companies are often motivated by the desire to reduce business risks, many are also motivated by a commitment to social responsibility.

Businesses have a vital role to play in transitioning to sustainable landscapes.

The scope and scale of urban resiliency challenges warrant action by all – including the business community. CI properties are disproportionately landscaped with turf grass and have large impervious surfaces. In the Santa Ana River Watershed, for example, CI parcels have three times as much turf grass as residential parcels. Impervious surfaces on CI properties make up almost 10 percent of the entire watershed area. As a result, there are vast areas owned and operated by businesses that can be converted to sustainable landscapes that contribute to shared watershed goals.

Curious what benefits are available at your company’s facilities? You can explore them using this interactive mapping tool.


BLOG: Water Stewardship In Our Own Backyard: The California Water Action Collaborative

CWAC has become a powerful platform for diverse stakeholders to come together and pursue collective action projects that improve water security in California for people, business, agriculture, and nature.

Environmental Leaders, Fortune 500 Companies Announce Collaborative Investments to Protect California’s Water Future

As California endures its fifth year of record-breaking drought, twenty leading organizations today announced their collaborative support for critical projects designed to protect California’s water future. Together the groups form the California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC).