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California’s Unexpected Water Conservation Leaders: Commercial Property Owners


By Bob Best

Fewer showers and browner lawns were predicted for California when Gov. Jerry Brown issued a 25 percent water-use reduction mandate in April. One group that was not concerned: corporate property owners. Many corporations and commercial property investors are already leaders in water conservation measures for office, industrial and other commercial facilities. However, if the rules become even stricter, conserving even more water could present a challenge. And that’s a real possibility.

Another warm, dry winter this year left California with a record-low 5 percent of its average mountain snowpack, a vital source of fresh water, and now the snowpack is down to nearly zero. The state has always been subject to periodic droughts, but the latest one has been exacerbated by record-high temperatures that increase evaporation and turn more winter precipitation from snow to rain. Heading into its dry season, much of the state remains in extreme drought.

Hence Gov. Brown’s 25 percent mandate, which is likely to be the first of many mandatory water restrictions. In April, state regulators released a draft of strict community-by-community water reduction rules, as recently detailed in the New York Times, generating a slew of comments from those affected.

Where is the water being used?

As explained in a new JLL report, half of California’s water supply remains in the environment. The agricultural industry consumes another 40 percent. The remaining 10 percent of water used in the state goes to urban and suburban homeowners and businesses. Just 2.5 percent of all state water goes to commercial real estate landscaping and indoor consumption.

While corporations and commercial real estate investors may not seem like the “face of environmentalism,” many companies that own or operate real estate in California have been quietly doing their part for water conservation for years. Nearly all have realized cost savings as well as environmental benefits from these efforts. Additionally, some have acted to fulfill corporate responsibility goals, to respond to previous conservation legislation, and/or to obtain LEED, Green Globes or Energy Star certifications for their buildings. Environmentally sustainable features usually reduce building operating expenses, and attention to green building materials is becoming a core competency for facilities managers.

Waves of savings

Here are a few of the ways commercial property owners are leading the charge to reduce water waste:

  • No-fuss, no-muss landscaping. The state of California has made it clear that local water boards and their communities should look for simple ways to conserve water. Smart landscaping for corporate property owners and homeowners has made a big difference. While urban office buildings tend to have more indoor than outdoor plants, many suburban office parks have populated their acres of rolling greenery with drought-resistant native plants and landscape design that avoids wasteful runoff. Water-intensive grasses have been replaced with easy-going varieties that require little attention.

  • Low-flow is the way to go. California’s 25 percent mandate includes a moratorium on water fixtures that are not low-flow, and many commercial property owners are already ahead of the game with water-efficient technologies to reduce consumption. These include low-flow toilets, faucets, ice machines and water fountains, laundry machines, and a host of other office or industrial items.

  • No-waste maintenance. In addition to low-flow bathroom and kitchen fixtures, corporate property owners have also been investing in smart building technologies so that buildings can be managed and operated as efficiently as possible. Well-maintained, highly efficient building systems reduce the amount of water used for heating and cooling, keeping steam traps and hot water systems well-insulated and free of leaks.

  • Waste not, want not. Smart commercial building owners are applying new technologies to HVAC systems to reduce water use through more effective cooling towers. Since commercial building systems use water to dissipate heat, techniques to control water loss in the cooling process can significantly reduce a building’s water use during cooling season.

  • Show me the money. Landlords and corporate property owners are tapping into government tax incentives to help mitigate the costs associated with replacing lawns, improving irrigation systems, and upgrading metering systems to monitor water flow more accurately. Utility savings can save thousands of dollars per year, rapidly recouping investments in water conservation infrastructure. Some corporate property owners are enlisting employees to use water wisely, whether with competitions or other incentives to maximize conservation.

Commercial property building owners and occupiers that have invested in water conservation deserve applause for doing their part ahead of a record-breaking drought. Many of these companies have already reduced energy waste and implemented office recycling programs, among other sustainability measures. Reaching the next level of conservation will take creativity and collaboration on all sides — but the commercial property sector has already proven it has what it takes to be environmentally sustainable.

Image credit: Flickr/Linda Tanner

Bob Best is Executive Vice President of Energy and Sustainability Services at JLL. He directs energy and sustainability services for JLL’s commercial property owner and investor clients. He is a LEED Accredited Professional through the U.S. Green Building Council and a Green Globes Professional through the Green Building Initiative. Follow Bob Best on Twitter at @RSBest

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