Water Restoration Certificates have revolutionized the way businesses and corporations are able to conserve our most precious commodity.
WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder

Top: Montana’s Prickly Pear Creek flows from the Elkhorn Mountains north to the Helena Valley before entering Lake Helena. BEF works to restore up to 500 million gallons to approximately two river miles of additional usable habitat for fish and wildlife. Above: Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) restores rivers and wetlands through its watershed restoration program. Todd Reeve is the CEO of BEF. Photo: Kirsten Carroll

There’s a water crisis in America, and it goes far beyond the headline-grabbing drought in California. Tens of thousands of miles of streams, rivers, and wetlands are critically and chronically dewatered every year, says Todd Reeve, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF). Sometimes, trickles of poor-quality water are the only traces of once-gushing creeks from a century ago. Sometimes, only bare, dry channels remain. And out in the American West, dried-up streams do not simply mean drawing the curtains on beautiful vistas: Parched landscapes are bad omens for the wider ecosystems that depend on them.


“When rivers and land intersect in arid places like the southwestern United States, that’s where all the life is,” Reeve says. “That’s where all the people live, where all the animals live, where all the recreation is. If you bring water back into the desert, the potential for how beneficial that can be is off the charts.”


Fortunately, some of the water has started flowing once again: Since 2009, BEF’s watershed restoration program has restored more than 8 billion gallons of water through more than 30 projects across 10 states and Mexico. An enormous part of that success is owing to the advent of Water Restoration Certificates (WRCs), a novel, market-based solution that allows businesses and corporations to quantify and offset their buildings’ water footprints by linking them with conservation groups who fund local water restoration in their backyard. Outside Phoenix, Arizona, one of the latest projects to take advantage of the WRC model is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-seeking distribution center for Recreational Equipment, Incorporated, the outdoor product retailer better known as REI. It is also the first project to take advantage of a LEED pilot credit added just this summer, one that brings the sustainability principles and benefits of WRCs to a global audience of green builders and developers.


“As water scarcity and water quality become bigger issues around the world, USGBC was looking for ways to address those issues that allow people to make an impact on a broader scale,” says Theresa Backhus, Sites Technical Specialist for USGBC. Backhus oversees LEED’s Water Efficiency credit category and helped guide WRCs to fruition as a pilot credit. “We were also looking for an opportunity for people to make an impact on water conservation when they can’t necessarily do so on site—maybe builders simply aren’t able to conserve or restore ecosystems, habitats, or water bodies within the boundaries of their projects. We see WRCs as being similar to RECs [renewable energy certificates]: a way to have a large-scale impact.”


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?”

REI’s core vision is to protect the health of places where its members tend to play. The company wants people to use the water restoration certificates as a way of driving positive change.


REI already had a strong relationship with BEF—as far back as 2007, the retailer sourced carbon offsets from them. At the same time, BEF had already formed partnerships with groups like the Nature Conservancy and Friends of Verde River Greenway, who were devising water restoration projects in the Verde River Basin, right in the vicinity of REI’s new facility in Arizona. “When we found out that they had partnerships and active work in the watershed where our distribution center was going to be,” Myers says, “that’s when it was really a go.”


BEF presented a portfolio of projects that aligned with REI’s sustainability goals. “For REI, their mantra is that a life outdoors is a life well lived,” Reeve says. “In wanting to showcase their comprehensive investment in environmental stewardship and its recreational benefit, I believe REI has demonstrated a best-in-class approach to corporate citizenship.”


REI desired to go beyond balancing the water footprint of the Arizona distribution center, and aimed to balance its estimated entire corporate water footprint of around 100 million gallons, which is the total impact of the water restoration credits. (The company uses about 55 million gallons annually for its entire corporate footprint.) Importantly, REI’s commitment in Arizona also includes support for a full portfolio of projects around the Verde River, a wild and scenic water body that supplies municipal water to the Phoenix metro area and serves as a playground for the outdoors set. The projects that REI funded included a permanent conservation easement that allows a local farm to stay in operation and avoid future subdivision while protecting its adjacent river corridor for fish, wildlife, and recreation; new recreation access points for the public to picnic and float on the river; two projects that bring new irrigation infrastructure and upgrades that reduce water users’ withdrawal from the river and increase flow to two tributary systems; and funding crews to remove invasive plants and restore natural vegetation to the river system, offering volunteers a chance to participate in restoring the Verde River Basin.


“By coming in and being open-minded and innovative,” Reeve says, “REI has made a lasting investment in a place that’s going to deliver water quality; benefits to fish and wildlife and recreation; and benefits to the surrounding community.”


When REI submitted its water restoration work for consideration as an innovation strategy, it bolstered the USGBC’s interest in assimilating it into the LEED framework, a thought that pleases Myers. “All of this connects back to REI’s core vision of helping steward and protect the health of the places where our members play. We want huge numbers of people to use these water restoration certificates as an effective, impactful, financially efficient way of driving the change that we’re looking for. That USGBC has recognized that is a huge testament to them and a great example of progress.”


Backhus is optimistic about what awaits in a future where water restoration certificates go from a sustainability innovation to business as usual. “Thinking really big, I hope this will be the catalyst for a larger market of water restoration certificates, and I hope it will become a more standard approach to water conservation for the building industry. If [WRCs] catch on like RECs have caught on, they have the potential to not only be an easier way for developers to make a positive impact conserving water, but they’ll result in a lot of tangible benefits for people living in these watersheds, along with the cumulative benefits as a result of these projects happening all over the world.”


BEF is branching out from the West, forming partnerships and starting projects across the country. “People might think, ‘Oh, the Colorado River has flow issues,’ but every sector of our country has water issues: groundwater issues, water pollution issues, and water supply issues,” Reeve says.


But to hear Reeve tell it, as water restoration certificates and the projects that they fund proliferate, not only will the surrounding ecosystems benefit, the way we fundamentally think about water could be for the better. “Are water restoration certificates going to restore the flow of the Colorado River to the Gulf of Mexico? Absolutely not—these are vexing, super-complex issues that will require decades of work and thousands of smart people. But I think this program is chipping away and changing how we think about and approach this work. It’s changing the conversation so that when people turn on the tap, they begin connecting water from the tap with its community benefit and value in all of these places. Socially and ideologically, that impact is off the charts.” After all, every flood starts with a trickle.