Restoration projects are immediately adjacent to the Wild and Scenic River section of the Verde River that extends viable habitat for several at risk and endangered fish species. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy of Arizona ©Stephen Trimble
And as water restoration certificates blossom into a pilot credit, their true significance could be even greater, Reeve says. “This really creates a new mindset that helps individuals, companies, and businesses think about the value of water in a stream, in a wetland, in a lake, and begin to understand the economic value, the community value, and the sustainability value of having healthy flowing ecosystems. The program and these certificates offer a real opportunity to fundamentally and forever change the way we think about water.”
A Portland, Oregon–based nonprofit founded in 1998, BEF markets renewable energy, carbon offsets, and other environmental commodities to businesses, governments, and individuals. The organization pioneered Green Tags, one of the first renewable energy credits on the market. “We’ve had a long history of being involved in the energy sustainability space, especially with the corporate sector,” Reeve says. After starting up its watershed restoration program in 2009 and forming partnerships with standard-bearing organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, BEF began thinking about how to revive the damaged watersheds of the American West. “We became acutely knowledgeable that the withdrawal of water for human use was having a real impact,” Reeve says, “so we took our thinking about how corporations had stepped up in the carbon offset space and the renewable energy credit space, and that’s when we began thinking about what product or approach we could take to empower businesses and companies to support these kinds of projects and then encourage them to do so.”
Kirk Myers is the senior sustainability officer at REI.
In 2008, BEF made WRCs available, which come in 1,000-gal increments. Each certificate purchased symbolizes 1,000 gallons restored to a critically or chronically depleted river, stream, or wetland, usually at a particular time of year. With each project, BEF disburses money to local conservation organizations, which are endowed with the expertise to develop projects that restore an equivalent number of gallons in a given area. Specific projects might include upgrades to irrigation infrastructure or new water management approaches that reduce water use or allocate water rights to benefit rivers during times of low flow. And to ensure that water flows are restored in meaningful, lasting ways that benefit the wider ecosystem, each WRC-funded project is certified according to criteria developed by the National Fish and Wildlife’s Western Water Program.
The environmental benefits of funding these projects are not far-off abstractions, either. “It’s an incredibly visceral, visual impact,” Reeve says. “There are a number of projects where water restoration certificates are literally restoring flows to rivers that have been dry every summer for the last hundred years.” The formerly bone-dry Prickly Pear Creek in Montana has flowed steadily into late summer for the last seven years, thanks to a restoration of 500 million gallons to a two-mile stretch of stream, benefitting the fish, wildlife, and recreation-minded human population in nearby Helena, the state capital. Near Salt Lake City, Utah, working with farmers and ranchers near Chalk Creek to change irrigation protocols resulted in restoring 65 million gallons and reconnecting flow through a tributary stream vital to fish spawning and migration. In 2014, in a restoration effort that involved a slew of NGOs, the Colorado River reached the Sea of Cortez for the first time in decades. BEF and WRC funding in the delta was used to facilitate delivery of water to bolster groundwater levels and provide both in-river flows and direct water supply to support the regeneration of vital streamside habitat and vegetation in critical areas.
So far, organizations from the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball to White Wave Foods to Patagonia have used water restoration certificates to offset portions of their water footprints, and the certificates enable an ease of collaboration. “If there’s a $100,000 project, you could have 100 businesses each investing $1,000, or one really big company underwriting the whole thing,” Reeve says.
But the key advantage of water restoration certificates is their simplicity. WRCs distill the web of complications and logistics behind each project into a single, easy-to-understand metric that represents a tangible benefit to the health of a specific watershed. “Companies and builders [that purchase WRCs] simply don’t have the time or the ability to navigate the nuances of relationships, agreements, contracts, monitoring, all those levels of complexity in project development,” Reeve says. “We really wanted to bring credibility and a pathway that would allow a company to say, ‘here’s the outcome, here’s the metric, here’s what we’re going to achieve on the ground,” and then on our side is all of the complexity.”
Kim Schonek of The Nature Conservancy demonstrates the new head gate system that allows irrigators to use the water they need while leaving some for the river. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy of Arizona ©Tana Kappel
When BEF submitted water restoration certificates for consideration as a LEED pilot credit in late 2014, Backhus says the concept immediately piqued USGBC’s interest. The two organizations already had a strong relationship stemming from past work around renewable energy certificates, and BEF’s water restoration certificates seemed to bring that approach to water, offering a vehicle to further LEED’s aims of improving water conservation and water quality. “There’s a built-in quality control aspect to [WRCs] through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s restoration project oversight. We also like that there is the ability to scale up and replicate the program and its structure, not only out west or in the United States, but internationally as well,” Backhus says. “It’s a really innovative idea, one that no one has been doing on this scale.”
Transforming the certificates into a pilot credit took roughly a year and a half, Backhus says, a process that involved tweaking and refining the scope of BEF’s water restoration certificates for USGBC’s worldwide audience. The key difference is that the pilot credit allows for case-by-case consideration of local or international equivalents of BEF’s water restoration certificates. On June 13 of this year, water restoration certificates joined the LEED Pilot Credit Library.
“The water restoration pilot credit is a really exciting accomplishment,” says Natasha Samson, a member of the Water Efficiency Technical Advisory Group, one of three groups that vetted and approved the credit. “We hope to see the water restoration industry grow as the renewable energy providers have grown over the past 10 years. We see this as a great opportunity to show leadership in water conservation, a topic of growing concern around the world.”
At the same time that WRCs began working their way toward becoming a LEED pilot credit, USGBC had been working with REI while the retailer aimed for LEED Platinum certification on its newest facility in Goodyear, Arizona. It’s REI’s third distribution center in the country, equipped with a 2.2-MW solar array on the roof and a host of measures, like Hyperchairs and an efficient air-conditioning system that cools the net-zero-energy building in the 110ºF-plus desert heat. But given the locale and the company’s outdoors ethos, water became a foremost concern in its design.
“What really drove a lot of REI’s thinking was that energy matters in the Phoenix market, but water is even more tangible and impactful,” says Kirk Myers, senior sustainability manager for REI. “One way is just in terms of water sustainability in the Southwest. The other is in terms of recreation, of having very few places where our customers are able to play. The question became: How do we not just work within our four walls and make great decisions about water consumption and use within what we control on site, but rather how do we make this local watershed more robust and introduce more people to the recreational opportunities that exist here, and actually become advocates for the health of these places?”