The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report titled, “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy.” The report helps raise awareness of the true value of water, calling out a need for more sustainable and efficient water management strategies to ensure this irreplaceable resource doesn’t run out.

By: Elisa Speranza, CH2M HILL Operations Management Business Group President and Bob Bailey, CH2M HILL Water Business Group President

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a significant report, “The Importance of Water to the US Economy.” On the surface, this report seems like a lesson in economics—how businesses can reduce costs and better manage their resources. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see this report is helping Americans, like you and me, understand why we can’t take for granted our access to clean, reliable water sources.

Water is one resource we all share. Our natural environment depends on it, and we know that water is essential to all life on this planet. In the U.S., we expect that when we turn on our kitchen sinks, water will flow freely from the tap; but what if one day, we go to get a drink of water and find the source dry? While this may seem extreme and unlikely to happen in our lifetime, the reality is, we all have a responsibility to protect and conserve this valuable, irreplaceable resource now for future generations.

Water is used in nearly every industry and for nearly every product. It takes 32 gallons of water to make 1 glass of wine and 19 gallons to grow just a single apple. It takes 700 gallons to produce 1 shirt and 40,000 gallons to manufacture a car. If you  consider all of the water it takes to grow food and manufacture products to feed and clothe Americans alone, the numbers are staggering —water certainly does play a pivotal role in our nation’s economy and the “energy-water-food nexus” is more than just a buzz word in the news.

With population doubling over the next 20 years and placing greater demands on water in energy and food production (as well as general potable usages), our world could face a water crisis.

Last year CH2M HILL wrote a report, “The Changing Value of Water to the U.S. Economy and Implications from Five Industrial Sectors.” The report, which was developed for EPA as part of its “The Importance of Water to the United States Economy” initiative, examines the critical role water plays in industrial production and the U.S. economy, and how the value of water is changing in five industrial sectors: semiconductor manufacturing, thermal power generation, mining, chemicals, and oil and gas.

Even though water plays such a fundamental role across our economy, one of the challenges we face in allocating and managing water is identifying the true cost of water.

The EPA’s latest report suggests greater collaboration to build analytic tools to help us understand the economic value of water, as often times the cost of water needed to produce a good or service is overlooked. Sophisticated tools will enable us to analyze the total costs, benefits, and economic impacts of alternative water management strategies, giving large corporations and small businesses the knowledge to choose a sustainable and efficient path forward when it comes to managing water use.

For years, CH2M HILL has partnered with global business organizations and companies to help develop the world’s leading water risk management tools, enabling individual companies across sectors (oil and gas, power, and cement) to identify their most significant water-related risks both globally and locally, as well as the steps they should take to cost-effectively manage risk, report water performance and capitalize on opportunities. Developed in conjunction with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, these private-sector Water Tools  are used to help companies map their water use and evaluate water-related business risks throughout their value chains.

These Water Tools are only one way we are helping to bring greater awareness to the economic impact water has on our world. There’s still much work to do, and we’re pleased that the EPA is helping raise awareness about the need for each of us to secure, conserve, and better manage water. As the EPA’s report says, “The path to making better choices in using and managing our water resources begins with a better understanding of the economic and environmental consequences of the options available to us.” On our own, we may not hold the solution, but working together through a collaborative approach, we can address our nation’s water challenge and work to secure a vital shared resource.

CH2M HILL is also part of the Value of Water coalition (a group of organizations that joined together earlier this year to inform Americans about the value of water and the challenges facing our country’s water infrastructure). The alignment between what the EPA is doing to raise awareness and what our coalition is trying to achieve represents real progress in building public support for sound water policy.

Ms. Speranza is President of CH2M HILL’s Operations Management Business Group. She also serves as the firm’s Executive Sponsor for Sustainability and President of the CH2M HILL Foundation.

Mr. Bailey is the President of the Water Business Group for CH2M HILL. In this role, he has worldwide responsibility for the development, project performance, and risk management of all CH2M HILL water, wastewater and water resource projects. The firm was named Water Company of the Year at the 2012 Global Water Awards.