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Getting More Water from Less: The New Business Trend in a Hotter, Drier West

By Karen Yacos
Director, Water Infrastructure, Ceres

The Sonoran desert, where rainfall averages just nine inches per year, may seem like an unlikely place for a high tech company with big water demands to settle.

But Chandler, Arizona is precisely where Intel Corporation has chosen to develop its second largest manufacturing facility in the United States. Every day, thousands of workers, dressed in white, hermetically-sealed clean suits, churn out zillions of the silicon chips that make our mobile phones, laptops and cars tick. Producing those tiny chips requires copious amounts of water for cleaning: eight million gallons of water per day, in fact, or more than what’s needed to fill 12 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The City of Chandler, Arizona, has worked closely with Intel and other manufacturing companies in the community of 250,000 to maximize water re-use and conservation efforts to reduce the use of potable water by millions of gallons each day.
The City of Chandler, Arizona, has worked closely with Intel and other manufacturing companies in the community of 250,000 to maximize water re-use and conservation efforts to reduce the use of potable water by millions of gallons each day.

So where is all that water coming from in a western desert state? And especially now, as more than 14 years of persistent drought and growing water use are draining the reservoirs fed by the Colorado River, the lifeblood for about 40 million residents, businesses and agriculture in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Recycled water. Lots of it. Nearly all the water that Intel uses at its Ocotillo Campus is reused or reclaimed, either at Intel or through the City of Chandler. And Intel isn’t the only heavy water use corporation to adopt smart reuse technologies.

Making do with less water is likely the new normal for the west and some corporations are using innovation to reduce their water consumption, and finding new sources of water in the process. These companies understand that staying in business over the long-term will require a fundamental shift in how they use water. Adopting large-scale water reuse practices to efficiently use available resources has to be part of the plan where water is scarce.

Nonpotable reclaimed water is often distributed with a dual piping network that keeps reclaimed water pipes completely separate from potable water pipes. In the United States, nonpotable reclaimed water is distributed in purple pipes to distinguish it from potable water.
In the United States, nonpotable reclaimed water is distributed in purple pipes to distinguish it from potable water.

Intel began partnering with the municipal water agency in Chandler, Arizona as far back as the 1980s.

“Manufacturing in the desert, we knew that a strategic, sustainable approach to water use was needed,” said Todd Brady, Intel Corp.’s sustainability director, in a phone call.

The City gets 38 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and even 35 years ago the stress on the water systems was apparent.

The silicon chipmaker, in partnership with the city, employs a combination of water reuse solutions, including: 1) internal projects where Intel reclaims, processes and reuses its own wastewater, 2) use of treated wastewater from the City of Chandler for scrubbers, cooling towers, and irrigation, and 3) a system for piping its industrial wastewater directly back to the city’s treatment facility for recharging the groundwater aquifer.

Intel funded the construction of an advanced reverse osmosis water treatment facility. The wastewater is treated to meet drinking water standards.  Over time, the chipmaker has stored more than five billion gallons of treated wastewater to the groundwater aquifer. Intel also pays monthly fees for the system’s operation, which costs $2.4 million per year to run.

The partnership is a win-win for both the company and community. Using reclaimed water ensures that Intel will have a consistent supply—even as drought and Arizona’s fast growing population put a squeeze on the state’s resources. And for Chandler, the partnership, “allows us to use our potable water resources for other needs in the community, and retain the largest employer in the City,” according to Gregg Capps, Water Resources Manager for Chandler.

Intel wants to do even better in how it uses water, and has plans to increase its rate of water recovery further. The company has spent more than $150 million to upgrade and expand the reverse-osmosis and water-reclamation facilities to handle a major expansion at the plant that will allow it to manufacture more powerful computer chips.

“It’s an investment in the future,” said Brady. “ Such investments give us the ability to proactively plan for future water challenges.”

Other companies drawing water from the Colorado River Basin include Genentech, a leading biotechnology company that uses highly purified water for production and precision cleaning when manufacturing medicines. Genentech’s Oceanside plant in Southern California is considering future plans to further reduce water usage through onsite wastewater treatment, water reuse and collaboration efforts with the City of Oceanside. Since 2011 Genentech’s Oceanside site has implemented water efficiency projects, saving millions of gallons of water.  One project in progress consists of increasing cooling tower makeup to be completely reclaimed reject water from onsite processes, an improvement that will significantly reduce the plant’s annual water consumption.

The 1,450-mile-long Colorado River supplies water for 30 million people.
The 1,450-mile-long Colorado River Basin stretches from Colorado to Mexico, and drains a total of 243,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of France.

Then there’s Anheuser-Bush InBev, which has implemented many water efficiency initiatives at its brewery in Los Angeles, another region serviced by the Colorado River. The beer giant reuses its effluent—reclaiming water in auxiliary operations to reduce the draw from local sources. It supplies its wastewater to local communities for agricultural irrigation, watering public parks and soccer fields, street cleaning, fire-fighting and other community needs, replacing the fresh water that would otherwise be used.

Securing sustainable water supplies in the U.S. west and other dry regions is going to take this level of corporate collaboration with municipal water authorities. Increasingly it’s happening—and not only in the highly stressed Colorado River basin. Apple recently inked a deal with the water agency in Prineville, Oregon to pay for a treatment facility to re-use water from the city’s sewage treatment system for evaporative cooling at its data centers. Apple is Prineville’s biggest consumer of water, using 27 million gallons of water last year. The water treatment system will save nearly five million gallons a year and help keep Apple in the area.

Working together to recycle water will help corporations and cities manage risk and find more water in areas that increasingly have less. It’s a trend to watch that will likely become the norm on a hotter, more water-stressed planet.

 

About the Author
Karen Yacos is the Director of Water Infrastructure at Ceres,
a nonprofit organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on global sustainability challenges. Connect with her by email at yacos@ceres.org. Learn more about Ceres at www.ceres.org.