The Colorado River Basin: Why We Need Watershed Scale Solutions

Entrepreneurs To Solve Wicked Water Problems

While water scarcity, poor quality, lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and inequity of water services are a global problem, the solutions are typically at the local scale: the watershed.

Framing water challenges and solutions at the watershed scale provides the potential to engage local stakeholders to understand the challenges and, more importantly catalyze solutions.

Private sector water stewardship strategies include “collective action” programs such as the CEO Water Mandate Water Action Hub and The Nature Conservancy Water Funds. These programs are designed to engage with stakeholders on a range of projects related to conservation, access to water, infrastructure, etc.

While these collective action programs have engaged with several stakeholder groups, including competitors in a pre-competitive space to accomplish their mutual goals, these programs have typically not been focused on working with entrepreneurs and investors to solve “wicked water problems.”

This approach misses an opportunity to engage with the two stakeholder groups that have speed, focus and the potential to disruptive the status quo.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Fortunately, this is changing. Waiting for collective action programs to gain traction and positively impact environmental and social challenges is becoming less of an exclusive approach. Moreover, innovation in public policy is slow and can be accelerated through private sector initiatives, innovative technologies and engagement by the financial community.

There is an opportunity to mobilize investors (foundations, family offices, multinationals) to directly invest in water technology start-ups and growth-stage companies to solve water scarcity, quality, access, and equity issues. The opportunity is to bring in investors that have an interest in solving water but historically have not ventured into this investment area.

“The CRB is a watershed that is water-challenged but also has the potential to mobilize local stakeholders to solve local challenges.”

The Colorado River Basin (CRB) is an example of a watershed that is water-challenged but also has the potential to mobilize local stakeholders to solve local challenges. The watershed is coming to grips with dated public policy, overallocation, and the impacts of climate change.

While several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector are active in the Colorado River Basin, there is an opportunity to catalyze the water technology entrepreneurs and investors to tackle wicked water problems at a local scale.

The CRB represents about $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, which is equivalent to about 1/12 of the total gross domestic product in the U.S.

It is estimated that if 10 percent of the River’s water were unavailable (a decline quite possible under projected climate change scenarios of 10 to 30 percent flow reductions by 2050) there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs, in just one year.

Digital Technology Opportunities

We are seeing the impact that digital technologies and investment together can have in solving challenges within the watershed. The Digital Technology Opportunities in the Colorado River Basin and Liquid Assets reports provide examples of how organizations such as Encourage Capital and the Walton Family Foundation are taking action.

In particular, there are opportunities to catalyze the investment community to support innovative digital water technology solutions within the CRB.

“The fund will focus on accelerating the adoption of digital water technology solutions in satellite and aerial AI and blockchain applications.”

Examples of digital water technology start-ups with the potential to address water challenges within the CRB include Gybe and True Elements. These digital water tech companies are changing the way data are collected and turned into actionable information. Real-time and predictive analytics results in more efficient and effective decisions on water management and stewardship.

Mobilizing Local Stakeholders

The Colorado River Basin Fund was launched on World Water Day 2021 and is the first of its kind place-based water technology investment fund focused on addressing technology solutions in water treatment (e.g., reuse and recycling), conservation (e.g., water efficiency), alternative water supply (e.g., air moisture capture and solar desalination), localized water treatment systems, and alternative agriculture (aquaculture and vertical/urban farming).

The CRB fund will also focus on accelerating the adoption of digital water technology solutions in satellite and aerial artificial intelligence and blockchain applications.

Building upon the work of the Digital Technology Opportunities’ in the Colorado River Basin and others, the Colorado River Basin Fund has the potential to bring new stakeholders to the CRB to tackle water quantity, quality and access challenges.

Wicked problems such as water require engagement and mobilization by all stakeholder groups including entrepreneurs and investor. The Colorado River Basin Fund’s goal it to be part of this engagement within the CRB.

This article was originally published on Aqua Tech Trade.

Will Sarni

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of water strategy consultancy, Water Foundry. He is also the CEO of the Colorado River Basin Fund, the first placed-based water-focused investment fund in the United States. Prior to Water Foundry, Sarni was a managing director at Deloitte Consulting where he established and led the water strategy practice. He was the founder and CEO of DOMANI, a sustainability strategy firm, prior to Deloitte. Sarni is the author of five books. Sarni is a co-founder of WetDATA and a host of the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom. He is a board member of Flowater, Silver Bullet, Project WET and the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. He was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the WAITRO Global Water Innovation Summit 2020 and was on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week from 2013 through 2019. His advisory work includes working with the 2020 X-PRIZE (Infinity Water Prize), as a Bold Visioneer for the 2016 X-PRIZE Safe Drinking Water Team and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature- Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience. He is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security.

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