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Overcoming Challenges on the Path to Water Sustainability

As companies develop strategies to address water issues, they may encounter resistance due to established water management practices, perceptions, and policies at the global, national, regional, and local level. At times, corporate culture, public policy, and/or market forces may be strong enough to discourage pursuit of more sustainable water management practices and strategies. Yet, delaying may result in missed opportunities for market leadership or environmental improvement, as well as difficulty in pursuing more sustainable options later.

This section is intended to help tool users anticipate and identify such obstacles and perceived obstacles. It also offers tips and strategies for overcoming these challenges.

It is not always easy to see the benefits of investing in sustainable water activities, especially in the face of existing public policy disincentives. Taking a leadership role in your company or sector may entail risks, but you may reap important benefits by improving your relationships with critical customers, such as government regulators, shareholders, employees, community groups, or financial institutions.

Common Misperceptions about Water Management

“The price of water does not always justify conservation activities.”

With low water prices, it can be difficult to make a business case for investing in conservation projects. In some cases, direct and hidden subsidies may be present within or external to the business that mask the true costs of water. These costs can often be “surfaced” to give a more complete picture of water-related expenses at a facility or company. The price of water is not likely to be fixed (or may be fixed only for the short-term) and may rise quickly or unexpectedly in the future.


  • Conduct a water use audit (possibly in conjunction with a local utility) to understand how much water is being used, for what purposes, at your facility.
  • Prioritize potential water saving activities. Look for “low hanging fruit,” where a business case is easy to make.
  • Consider indirect costs associated with water use, such as related maintenance of plant and equipment, electricity required for pumping, etc., in cost/benefit calculations.
  • Use increasing future water prices in projections. Overall trends point to lower subsidies and/or higher prices in the future.
  • Calculate other environmental and social “costs” of water use. Reducing water use may provide other benefits to the company by supporting its “license to operate” in the local community.

“If I do not use all of my water allocation this year, I will lose my water rights.”

Water law in some regions of the U.S., and in many other countries, promotes “use or lose” policies for individual water rights holders. At times, using less water may result in the loss of a valuable property right.


  • Consider water bank programs that allow saved water to be used for in-stream flow in many areas, while preserving existing water rights.
  • Consider leasing saved water.
  • Consider selling water rights to government agencies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for in-stream flow, or as part of a conservation easement.
  • Consider participating in programs that allow trading of ecosystem services or water quality credits.
  • Collaborate with other water users to create a water conservation trust that can work with several parties to develop efficiency incentives.

“If I conserve now, my share will be reduced further in times of drought or reallocation.”

During drought or other periods of reduction, water purveyors generally give no consideration for previous conservation efforts. Companies may believe they would be better prepared to respond to these events if they had maintained high levels of water use.


  • Negotiate upfront agreements with water purveyors for assuring access to adequate quantities during times of shortage in return for conservation measures.
  • Evaluate a wide range of options, including alternative source identification, in preparing drought contingency plans.
  • Consider activities that reduce vulnerability to supply disruptions.

“If I reduce my water use, local utilities will have to raise water rates to pay for system operations.”

Because utilities generally set rates based on water usage, the high fixed costs of local water systems can create a disincentive for conservation. Conservation may result in higher rates to users to meet fixed costs. For example, after successfully encouraging conservation during a drought in Seattle, Washington in 2001, the local utility announced that it may need to increase water rates to recover lost revenue.


  • Encourage local water purveyors to search for solutions that will lower fixed costs without decreasing capacity or water quality (i.e., investing in watershed protection or demand reduction programs).
  • Recognize that rate increases can result from a variety of factors/influences.
  • Recognize that conservation efforts may still result in reduced total costs to the company despite rate increases.

“If I reduce my use or improve water quality, there is no guarantee that the benefits will flow to ecosystem restoration or other public purposes.”

Public resource uses are often said to result in “the tragedy of the commons.” The “tragedy” is that sharing resources creates an incentive for individuals to compete for and overuse, rather than conserve, those resources.


  • Participate in watershed groups that represent all landowners, managers, and users. Reach joint agreements about watershed protection activities.
  • Consider leading by example and challenging others to contribute to watershed protection and water conservation efforts.

“The public is not ready to accept the use of recycled water.”

There may still be low public understanding of the potential health effects of water reuse and recycling activities.


  • Take an incremental approach. Build on the success of other efforts. For example, many golf courses are now using recycled water for landscaping. The public seems to accept this use.
  • Include local groups during the development of ideas for water reuse or recycling.
  • Provide public outreach and education about use of recycled water.
  • Use or develop certification systems to provide product branding benefits.