Water Management

Materiality Assessment Topic: Company Water Use

Issue Summary

Water is essential to life. It is a vital resource for environmental and social sustainability and economic prosperity. Reducing water use and managing this resource wisely is critical.

Our Position

We have a responsibility to actively manage and reduce our water use wherever possible.

Data Highlights

2014 Key Performance Indicators
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Absolute (gallons) 3.331B 3.357B 3.282B 3.113B 3.046B
Water intensity (gallons/$ thousand revenue)1 26.80 26.49 25.75 24.18 23.15
Water intensity (gallons/Terabyte network traffic) 105 84 61 48 45
2014 Goal
2014 Progress Toward Goal
  • Realize 150 million gallons — roughly 15 percent of cooling tower water use and 5 percent of total water use — of annualized water savings by the end of 2015.
  • Realize 400 million kWh in annualized electricity savings from free-air cooling projects by the end of 2015.

  • Since the beginning of 2013 we’ve seen an overall annualized water savings of 236 million gallons, 72 million of which is directly attributable to conservation and free-air cooling projects. We’ve strategically optimized our investment in energy projects to include conservation, free-air cooling and real estate divestment, which resulted in exceeding our water savings goal associated with mechanic cooling improvement.
  • Since the beginning of 2013, we have realized 107 million kWh of annualized electricity savings associated with free-air cooling projects.

Our Action

Water is deeply important to the communities in which we operate. It is also critical to our own operations. The network that forms the core of our business requires a controlled and cooled environment, and water is oftentimes a critical input to the cooling equipment we use to create those conditions. In 2014, we used 3.046 billion gallons of water.

The importance of water became clear in 2014. In response to the driest California year on record and the emergency drought declaration by Gov. Jerry Brown to conserve water, AT&T California President Ken McNeely last year asked AT&T’s 34,000 California employees to reduce their company water usage by 30 percent until the drought declaration lifted. We stopped washing AT&T’s California fleet of more than 15,000 vehicles, reduced facility landscape irrigation, turned off decorative water features or fountains at corporate buildings, and remained vigilant in identifying water waste.

Start with Data

In 2010, we embarked on a process of water self-discovery that started with our first water footprint, and has led us to a multiyear engagement with Environmental Defense Fund to develop a set of tools and goals around cooling-related water efficiency. Learn more at www.edf.org/attwater.

We produced our first water footprint in 2010, but recognized that this top-line number was insufficient, so we analyzed further, realizing that:

  • Our top 125 water-consuming facilities constitute almost 50 percent of our overall water consumption, and
  • Thirty-eight of these 125 sites are in “high” or “very high” water stress regions, as determined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Water Tool.

Identify Opportunity

In 2011, we launched our Water Scorecard, modeled after our successful Energy Scorecard, to track water usage at these facilities and identify water-saving opportunities using an intuitive grading system. We found that cooling towers, which use evaporation to begin the mechanical cooling cycle, provide our biggest water-saving opportunity and best financial return. These pieces of equipment, which are often used to help chill large buildings, require large volumes of water – 25 percent of an office building’s daily water use on average – and even more in buildings such as data centers that have more heat-producing pieces of equipment than people. In this video, Tim Fleming, director of sustainability operations at AT&T, explains how cooling towers work and why they are water-intensive.

Engage Experts to Build Tools and Refine the Business Case

Together, these bits of information informed our collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which began in May 2012. To evaluate options for water efficiency in cooling towers, we first ran a series of pilots across the United States to understand the amount of water, energy and chemicals that could be saved through various operational and technical improvements, as well as through increased use of free-air cooling.

One cooling tower filtration system upgrade costs less than $100,000 to install but promises more than $60,000 in annual water and sewer savings, paying for itself in less than two years. As another example, a minor $4,000 equipment upgrade to expand free-air cooling promises nearly $40,000 in annual savings. These savings – deployed company-wide – add up.

During the process of working with EDF, we developed several fundamental educational and efficiency tools to develop a greater understanding and help clarify the process for water efficiency. In addition to these tools, our key finding was that the business case for water efficiency investment must take a comprehensive look at all cost savings – particularly related to electricity – that come from efficiency efforts.

In 2014, AT&T realized 5.1 million gallons associated with 14 water conservation projects, including:

  • A water treatment control system in Madison, Wisconsin
  • Optimizing performance at a cooling tower in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by making physical improvements and resetting water level controls.
  • Removing computer room cooling units and modifying air ducts to use existing air handling units in Columbus, Ohio

Set Goals and Share

In 2013, we established a suite of water efficiency-related goals for the next few years. We purposely set these goals to establish good operational practices, push the limits of our expected savings estimates and stress the importance of sharing these findings with a broad audience.

When scaled across AT&T, the 30-40 percent reduction potential associated with the cooling process is a substantial saving, but could represent tremendous savings if achieved more broadly. EDF estimates the toolkit could help U.S. commercial buildings collectively realize up to 28 billion gallons of potential water savings annually.

That’s why we made our tools available to all organizations that could benefit from them. Over the course of 2013, EDF and AT&T distributed and promoted these tools to building owners who have the opportunity to reduce water usage and costs. In 2014, EDF teamed up with the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) to expand the toolkit and take over its management at http://www.gemi.org/EDFGEMIwaterMAPP/.


Updated on: Sep 22, 2015