About this time of year when I see a neighbor with a green lawn I instinctively think <insert expletive here>. I live in Seattle. Imagine how much trickier the scenario is in dryer states balancing the water needs of farmers, companies and residents. I heard a success story out of the Colorado basin where corporations, citizens and nonprofits worked together to restore river flows and find a balance that works for everyone.

West-Slope Colorado Towns Restore Local Flows, Even as Thirsty Front-Range Lawns Drink From their Rivers

I asked Val Fishman, one of the (aptly named) players, to explain how this partnership came together. Because I would have been tempted to just stew over the guy with the green lawn, but her organization and others actually did something about it.

Sandra Postel, Global Freshwater Fellow at National Geographic, and renowned freshwater expert, created the most robust online individual water footprint calculator a few years ago for National Geographic’s Freshwater Portal.  The calculator was designed to educate the public about an individual’s daily embedded water footprint, including the energy we use, the food we eat, and the products we buy.

Without any promotion, the site had a million visits in short order, thanks to the size of National Geographic’s reach.  Once people completed the calculation, they were informed whether their water footprint fell above or below the US national average.  (The average American’s embedded water use equated to 2,000 gallons a day; 2x the global average).  Suggestions were provided to reduce water use, but there was no opportunity to do anything about our rivers and streams drying up.  The calculator was missing a call to action.

Sandra Postel knew of an innovative market-based solution that enabled individuals and organizations to balance their unavoidable water use gallon for gallon through the purchase of Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s (BEF’s) Water Restoration Certificates® (WRCs).  WRCs fund water flow restoration to critically dewatered rivers and streams at a time and place that will provide the greatest environmental benefit.

Sandra reached out to Todd Reeve, CEO of BEF, suggesting they partner the National Geographic water footprint calculator with WRCs, enabling people to take a step further to address their water use.  Both parties agreed that the best way to spur individuals to take an action (i.e. pledge to conserve water through making different choices such as eating less meat) would be to remove the cost of the WRC.

Enter corporations seeking innovative, easily accessible tools to address their water footprint.  BEF had already been working with forward thinking companies such as WhiteWave Foods Company and Coca-Cola that had measured their company’s water footprint and were purchasing WRCs to balance their unavoidable water use.  The idea to make the pledge free for individuals, and tie it to a specific number of gallons restored for each pledge was born (1 pledge = 1,000 gallons and 1,000 gallons = 1 WRC).

Around the same time, Participant Media (social action documentary film company) had released a feature film about the global water crisis called Last Call at the Oasis.  The company was seeking a social engagement campaign with a simple call to action.  Thus, Change the Course, a first of its kind water sustainability campaign, was created as a partnership between National Geographic, BEF, and Participant Media.  The iconic Colorado River basin was chosen as the pilot river system because it was declared America’s most endangered river in 2012; it has not reached the sea in decades; it spans 7 states; and 30 million people rely on it, including a number of large manufacturing companies.  National Geographic would do the storytelling through editorial and video, documenting the water projects.  BEF would raise sponsor funding and lead water project identification.  Participant Media would create and manage social engagement.

Change the Course engages a global community in understanding how our daily choices affect our water footprint and inspires people to make individual pledges to conserve water.  For each public pledge to conserve water, Change the Course corporate sponsors fund new water flow restoration projects, tying 1,000 gallons of water restored to each public pledge received.  The campaign messaging is created to be fun, engaging, inspirational, and highly shareable.

In the past year and a half, Change the Course has enrolled over 68,000 into our pledge community, which is comprised of people in all 50 US States, and almost every country in the world.  Our corporate sponsors such as Silk, Coca-Cola, Disney, 1% for the Planet, Hunter Industries, GM Foundation, the NHL (Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild) and Patagonia have enabled the campaign to fund 6 new water flow restoration projects in the Colorado River basin, restoring over 2 billion gallons of water.

The campaign goals include enrolling a total of 225,000 public pledges; pioneering 10 new water flow restoration projects; and restoring 4 billion gallons of water by December 2015.  A year and a half in, things are tracking well, with many new sponsors interested in joining the movement to permanently redefine how we value, use and manage freshwater.  As the pilot in the Colorado is proven, Change the Course intends to expand its model to other US river systems.

To pledge, text “river” to 77177 or visit changethecourse.us.

Sponsors can contact Val Fishman at vfishman@b-e-f.org. Val’s work at BEF is focused on creating long-term partnerships that advance environmental restoration and education.  She oversees BEF’s marketing of RECs, carbon offsets and Water Restoration Certificates® to some of the world’s most visible and influential sports teams as well as many leading corporations and brands.  Val serves on the board of the Green Sports Alliance, and is on the female leadership team of the Alliance; co-creating the Women Sport & Environment Symposium in conjunction with the annual Summit.  Prior to her sustainability work, Val’s career in media, combined with her passion for corporate environmental responsibility, led her to start, design and implement a sustainability program at Clear Channel Radio in San Francisco.  She’s also a certified LEED® Green Associate.