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Freshly filled bottles travel down a conveyor belt on their way to packaging at Labatt London Brewery.

GEOFF ROBINS/geoff robins The Globe and Mail

In water-rich Canada, we tend to take this natural resource for granted. But water conservation, already a subject of vital importance in drier parts of the world, including much of Africa and the western United States, is becoming an issue of global concern. And as climate change concerns intensify, water conservation will become an ever bigger issue.

Because water systems consume huge amounts of energy for pumping and treatment, water conservation is directly linked to the carbon footprint of a company, city or household. Cutting water use means cutting energy use, and many companies are finding innovative ways to decrease the flow.

What's on tap?

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Next month, Labatt Breweries of Canada will be get a Water Efficiency Award from the Ontario Water Works Association, the industry association for drinking-water professionals. The Canadian brewing industry has made big strides in water conservation, and, over the past decade, Labatt's brewery in London, Ont., has cut the amount of water it uses to make beer by half.

Brewing is a surprisingly water-intensive industry. There's a lot of equipment and bottles that need to be washed, steam pours off during the brewing process, and water is also used for cooling. In 2003, for every bottle of beer produced, the brewery used the equivalent of more than seven bottles of water. Labatt cut that ratio dramatically, saving enough water to fill nearly 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year just at the brewery in London, where the company began its brewing tradition 164 years ago.

"It's about controlling costs, but also about creating a better environment for us," says Jeff Ryan, director of corporate affairs for Labatt Breweries of Canada. "If we don't protect and save water, we might not be able to brew beer in London for another 164 years."

One of the big changes came in 2008, when the brewery started re-using water in its bottle washing process. Instead of using fresh water from the city, it would use the water from the final rinse of one batch of bottles for the pre-rinse of the next batch. Along with improving sensors on the washers, this saved 86 million litres a year, the equivalent of 34 swimming pools.

In 2009 the company took a close look at its pasteurizers and realized they weren't running as efficiently as they could. With some fine-tuning, the company saved a further 40 million litres of water annually. Last year they added another 28 million litres in savings by sending the relatively clean grey water from the pasteurizing system to their powerhouse to use for chilling liquids used in the brewing process.

Other changes were as simple as using smaller spray nozzles at higher pressure for rinsing and making sure equipment is running as efficiently as possible. Steam from the brewing process is captured and run through generators to produce electricity before being condensed and re-used. The plant has its own 4-megawatt natural gas co-generation facility to produce electricity and steam, providing about 65 per cent of the brewery's energy needs.

To ensure maximum efficiency, Labatt checks its performance against a database maintained by its parent company, Anheuser-Bush InBev, the world's largest brewer, with facilities in 23 countries. This way, the London brewery will know if, for example, its bottle washer is using more water than the same model is at one of the company's other breweries. With daily tracking, problems can be quickly identified and dealt with, Mr. Ryan says.

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Most of the ideas came from workers on the brewery floor because they know the process best, he adds. Those ideas are shared on a company intranet, so if workers in London realize that they could use a smaller hose, then a brewery in Edmonton can also benefit.

Thirsty industry

While getting people to take shorter showers and buy low-flow toilets has an effect, serious water conservation programs have to involve industry. In Toronto, for example, just 1,000 users account for a third of all water consumption. At a time when the city is cutting programs everywhere, including some of its residential water conservation programs, it is continuing its Capacity Buy-Back Program, aimed at industry and large institutions, such as hospitals.

Toronto is working to reduce water consumption by 15 per cent, or 212 million litres a day. While this will have environmental benefits, it is not altruism but economics that sits behind the conservation programs.

"It's a win-win situation," says Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water, of the Capacity Buy-Back Program, in which the city kicks in cash when companies make and document permanent water savings.

Companies end up with lower water bills, saving them money, and it also makes them more competitive and likely to stay in the city, he says. But for the city, the savings are even more important. "We can gain back that capacity and delay future costs," he says. "We can handle population growth without huge infrastructure costs."

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The program has cut demand enough that the city now rarely experiences shortages during summer peak demand periods, and Mr. Di Gironimo says it recently saved $185-million because the city didn't need to build as large a water treatment plant as it would have without the program.

Parched places

Companies and governments are going to have different reasons for conserving water in different regions, but the bottom line will always be a strong motivator. As pressure on water resources intensifies, the cost of water will go up, making conservation an even bigger priority.

In Ontario, the pressure largely comes from the cost of water infrastructure, such as pipes and treatment facilities. However, across the border in the Great Lakes states, supply is a bigger issue.

A huge volume of water is diverted from the Great Lakes into thirstier parts of the U.S., most famously through the Chicago Diversion, which began with a shipping canal in 1848 and today serves some 7 million people.

In 2008, a powerful new piece of legislation called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Compact came into effect, ratified by Canada, the U.S., Ontario, Quebec and the eight states in the basin. It requires that water taken from the basin for use must be treated and returned to the basin, and also bans new water diversions. If a city straddling the basin's border wants to grow, it will need to cut water use to free up supply.

By contrast, in the Prairies, climate change itself will make water scarcity an issue. According to The New Normal, an anthology of research about climate change and the Canadian Prairies published by the Canadian Plains Research Centre at the University of Regina, the region will not necessarily get drier. Instead, it will have more concentrated and intense bursts of rainfall between drought periods. As a result, the priority will be on improving the efficiency of reservoirs, covering irrigation canals to reduce evaporation, and conserving water in cities so reservoirs don't run dry and crops don't wither during droughts.

Keeping companies afloat

While water conservation can be driven by government policy and incentives, it is frequently the effect of the bottom line that motivates companies to invest in new technology.

WIKA Instruments in Lawrenceville, Georgia makes temperature and pressure gauges. Between 2007 and 2009, the company replaced the water chilling systems on its 15 soldering stations with new ones that recirculate the water.

"We needed to conserve some water. Bottom line is we wanted to save some money, as we'd hit the recession," says company spokesperson Melissa Smith.

The company cut daily water usage from 60,305 gallons to 13,194 gallons. The chilling units cost $29,000 (U.S.), but paid themselves off quickly, as the company's water bill went down by $39,000 in the first year alone.

Environmentally, the effect is significant. WIKA gets its water from Lake Lanier, the artificial reservoir that's the water source for Atlanta and significant portions of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The reservoir has been severely strained during recent droughts, threatening the supply of fresh water to cities and wildlife, and leading to controversial bans on outdoor water use. Switching to recirculating cooling systems means the company draws 10.5 million gallons less from that reservoir per year.

Whether it's saving money, deferring infrastructure costs or simply making sure there's enough water to go around, companies and governments are going to be increasingly challenged to find innovative ways to conserve water in years to come. In some cases it will require new technology like the chillers WIKA installed. In others, it will be as simple as making it a priority to fix leaks or use a smaller spray nozzle.


Conservation tidbits

Scoop shower

In 2006, global food giant General Mills set a goal of cutting its water use of about 2.3 cubic metres of water per ton of product by 5 per cent. Last year, they hit 2.1 cubic metres, a solid 9 per cent reduction from 2006.

Although the company does expect water use to increase in 2011, it does have a few water-saving tricks up its sleeve. One is the "scoop shower." Ice cream scoops at Hagen Dazs shops are kept in cups that have water continuously flowing over them, in order to prevent bacteria from building up. One cup could use 250,000 litres of water in a year, and each store has two or three.

The new scoop shower cup has a button that blasts water for five or six seconds to clean the scoop. The company set up the new scoop showers at 30 of its stores and saw tap water use go down by 75 per cent.

Rinsing lenses

Making eyeglass lenses doesn't use a huge volume of water, but after the plastic is cut and ground, the lenses have to be thoroughly cleaned. Then there are coatings, perhaps dozens of layers thick on high-quality lenses.

Essilor International is the world's largest manufacturer of eyeglass lenses. In 2006, it made water its environmental priority. One of the first changes was made at its factory in Dijon, France. It changed the way its cascade rinsing system works and cut water use by nearly two-thirds. It also began a company-wide analysis of water use, considering the feasibility of closed-loop systems. Essilor stated at the time that it wanted to do this before water scarcity became an issue. Last year the company used just under 2.4 million cubic metres of water, down from 2.8 million in 2006.

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