Gallons and gigabytes: Why water matters to AT&T

The drought currently taking place in California and across much of the southwest has been in the news quite a bit lately.

According to a recent report issued by VOX Global  and the Pacific Institute, “Bridging the Gap: Are U.S. Companies Prepared for Looming Water Risks?,”  a significant  percentage of companies currently see water as a serious risk that they expect to worsen over the next five years. Perhaps even more surprising to many who have read the report is that the companies who took the survey represented a wide range of industry sectors —not just the sectors one might guess are impacted by water, like food, beverage and agriculture.

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AT&T operates in one of those sectors where water’s impact on business operations is perhaps not readily apparent to the public. When you text, talk or share content over a communication network like AT&T’s, water is involved. Through the use of cooling towers, the company uses water to maintain the temperature of many facilities that house the equipment through which data is transmitted to and from AT&T’s customers.  As the global economy becomes more digitized, the need for water used to cool servers and other technical equipment will likely increase, creating potential water risk in some regions. To help address these types of risks, AT&T first assessed its water footprint in 2010 and discovered that its top 125 water-consuming facilities – a small percent of AT&T’s overall real estate square footage – accounted for nearly half  of the company’s  total  water use, and 31 of these facilities were in regions already facing water stress. Furthermore, AT&T found that cooling systems were a common attribute across these facilities.

As a result of this information, AT&T collaborated with Environmental Defense Fund to explore water use in cooling towers. Through its pilots, AT&T found that free air-cooling and technical solutions could provide water savings of 14-40 percent. Early results also showed savings in water, sewer, chemical and energy costs. For example, a cooling tower filtration system that was installed at one AT&T facility cost less than $100,000 but has returned more than $60,000 a year in water and sewer savings alone.

With the lessons from its pilots, AT&T developed a free toolkit that other companies can use to address their own water use: www.edf.org/attwater. If U.S. companies adopted this toolkit, they could collectively save 28 billion gallons of water annually.

Schulz is AT&T assistant vice president of Sustainability of Operations.