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Cindy Bohlen headshot

Responsible Investment Requires a Deep Understanding of Water Risks and Opportunities

By Cindy Bohlen
A photo of the Milwaukee River

The Milwaukee River flows through the city's downtown harbor district. 

Milwaukee is gaining recognition as a global hub for expertise on water challenges and solutions. The Wisconsin city is located at the confluence of three rivers and Lake Michigan. That makes it part of one of the largest freshwater systems in the world. As a Milwaukee-based enterprise, Riverwater Partners has a great appreciation for the significance of water stewardship. Our proximity to these important bodies of water and the growing hub has led us to focus on water stewardship as a major theme in our responsible investment practice.

The importance of water stewardship

Water is one of the most important natural resources on the planet. It is integral to both life on Earth and conducting business. Seventy percent of the world’s freshwater is used in agriculture, making it critical for food production. Additionally, 57 percent of CEOs who responded to the U.N. Global Compact/Accenture survey in 2022 reported that air, water, and land pollution are having a high or moderate impact on their business today. 

Water stewardship ensures that resources are managed sustainably for communities and industry — making it critical for the well-being of society and business alike. Proper stewardship protects water quality and quantity, reduces the risk of water scarcity, and safeguards everyone’s access to clean water. 

A business risk and opportunity

Responsible investment advisors should seek to understand potential water-related risks and opportunities in the areas of access, regulation, reputation and more as part of their due diligence. They can do this by using publicly available company data, third-party data, and having a dialogue with management teams to learn about the potential for water to impact the business — or for the business to impact the water supply.

At Riverwater, our engagement practice seeks to raise awareness among management teams of the potential risks and opportunities that are presented by water. We offer educational information and suggestions for best practices to companies for which water stewardship is a salient issue. This is particularly applicable for businesses that rely on water for their operations — such as food and beverage companies, manufacturing companies, and extractive companies — as well as water technology companies and utilities that may potentially benefit from a focus on stewardship.

The Water Council is a helpful resource for investors who want to learn more about water. The Milwaukee-based nonprofit has an international reputation for supporting corporate water stewardship and fostering water-related technology, both of which could interest sustainable investors. Its Water Champions program, corporate water stewardship educational site, and thought leadership events like the annual Water Leaders Summit help individuals and organizations learn, connect and collaborate on important water topics.

Examples of scarcity and pollution

Water is a complicated issue that requires more attention. For example, low water levels in the Colorado River basin have already caused scarcity issues for communities and businesses in the western portion of the U.S., with more struggle and devastation expected. This is leading some to question new housing developments and increasing residential populations in places like Arizona. But the key factor is land use, said Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, and speaker at the 2022 Water Leaders Summit. Several cities have stored up water reserves and increased efficiencies to handle the changing circumstances, she said. 

Meanwhile, since agriculture uses up to 80 percent of Colorado River resources, it could be hit hard as resources diminish. The discussion with Sorensen provided valuable insights for Riverwater’s continued dialogue with a portfolio company that grows citrus and avocados in California and Nevada and relies heavily on water from the endangered source.

Not even Milwaukee, with its access to abundant freshwater from Lake Michigan, is immune from water problems. High levels of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — otherwise known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals” — have been found in the water in several areas around Wisconsin, including in groundwater and in private wells near Milwaukee’s airport. This could affect where and how businesses choose to operate in Milwaukee. But it also offers an opportunity for investment in companies working on the destruction and mitigation of PFAS.

Stewardship avoids "greenwashing"

The sustainable investment community is also desperately seeking credible frameworks from which to verify sustainability efforts and avoid “greenwashing” in their portfolio. This is particularly true for water stewardship, which can be difficult to quantify due to the resource’s complex and hyperlocal nature. 

The Water Council addresses this problem through its program for enterprise-wide water stewardship verification (WAVE). WAVE is an ideal tool for management teams that are interested in identifying their greatest water challenges and opportunities so that they can create a plan that will address them. Essentially, it rapidly moves companies from intention to action.

As responsible investors, our goal is to use sustainable investing to reduce business risk for portfolio companies while enabling better outcomes for our clients and society alike. Stewardship of our most precious natural resource has the potential to benefit the planet and its people while providing prosperity for all.

Image credit: Girish Shah/Flickr

Cindy Bohlen headshot

Cindy Bohlen, CFA, is Chief Mindfulness Officer and Director of ESG Investing at Riverwater Partners, which manages ESG strategies for institutions and individuals with a focus on small- and mid-cap stocks.

Read more stories by Cindy Bohlen