Guest Column | July 3, 2024

Unlocking The Potential Of Corporate Funding To Address Water Challenges — Part 2: Defining Metrics To Prioritize Water Projects

By Patricia Whitby, PhD and Carla De Las Casas, PhD

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This three-part series explores how corporations are voluntarily investing in projects that address water risk while demonstrating responsible leadership. Funding from corporate water stewardship (CWS) programs earmarked to address local water challenges has the potential to catalyze innovation in water management. Hence, CWS has important implications for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), utilities and municipalities who can leverage these funds to drive meaningful positive impacts for the benefit of communities and our environment.

Part 1 of this series provided an overview of the current drivers for CWS programs. Part 2 dives into the CWS program metrics used by companies when prioritizing investments in water projects, and how utilities can leverage private sector funds.

From Qualitative To Quantitative

As water challenges worsen, the current CWS best practices go beyond loose sustainability claims to include well-defined projects with measurable impacts and reliable metrics. While this transition from qualitative to quantitative improves accountability, it also adds complexity and cost to CWS programs. The inclusion of quantifiable project metrics has created a space in the market for community-level projects, often implemented by local or regional public entities such as utilities and municipalities. However, as CWS programs are still relatively new to utilities, it may be difficult to know how to engage with corporations to access funding. Utilities may also not be set up to accept private sector funding, and may require internal alignment or other pre-work before they are ready to engage. This is where collaborating with a consultant experienced with CWS programs can help. Brown and Calwell works with both private sector companies and public utilities and can facilitate the definition of water stewardship project metrics that align with the needs of both parties.

An important driver of quantifiable metrics for CWS programs is the fact that positive impacts on the watershed are not just a philanthropic activity, but an investment that can result in increased water availability and therefore impact long-term supply access and resiliency in water-stressed locations. Therefore, companies have become more rigorous when prioritizing eligible water projects. Because of the nature of these investments, CWS programs look for reliable partners who can be trusted to implement, maintain, and monitor projects for measurable and continued impact. Programs also require certainty in project performance and a predictable timeline, all within a budget that enables a program to meet its stated goals (e.g., return a predetermined volume of water back to the watershed by a target date).

Water Replenishment Volume As A Standard Metric

When it comes to selecting and prioritizing CWS investments, the concept of water replenishment volume has become a key unifying metric: a quantifiable amount of water that is conserved, recharged, returned, or made available within the watershed to address water quantity, quality, or access issues. The leading framework for water replenishment is the Volumetric Water Benefit Accounting (VWBA) guidance developed by the World Resources Institute and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The VWBA guidance provides an approach for estimating water benefits using volume as a metric — even for projects where volume is not the main driver, such as water quality, land conservation, and aquatic habitat restoration projects. As a result, CWS leaders are empowered to invest in a portfolio of projects that provide multiple benefits to the watershed and are driven by a common, quantitative metric for reporting impacts. This framework serves as the backbone for the CWS market, driving more confidence in investments. 

Even though CWS budgets have grown over time, companies still need to balance limited funds to meet their commitments. Prospective partners are more likely to receive funds when they can align their projects with the volumetric water replenishment needs of a CWS program, while demonstrating cost-effectiveness and aligning with company priorities. A company’s risk culture and the stage of their water stewardship journey often impacts their project investment selection. For example, early on, a company may prioritize projects yielding the highest volumetric benefit for each dollar spent (typically in terms of dollars per million gallon per year [$/MGY]). As a company builds a more robust water replenishment portfolio and nears its commitment deadline, it may prioritize certain types of projects to diversify the portfolio and reduce risk. Based on how close the corporation is to achieving their goal, they may add less-complex projects with more immediate benefits, or be more comfortable investing in higher cost projects with have additional co-benefits (e.g., strategic partnership with key watershed stakeholder, community benefits, or carbon benefits in addition to water replenishment).

Adding Utility Infrastructure Projects To A Replenishment Portfolio

Because of their early and active engagement in CWS programs, NGOs have seamlessly adopted VWBA guidance and dominated the investment landscape, primarily with nature-based solutions (NBS) such as forest restoration, wetland creation, and agricultural best practices. NBS have set industry standards and expectations for key project metrics, such as short project timelines, low unit cost (i.e., $/MGY), and environmental co-benefits.

With more companies making commitments, and with increasing scrutiny of investment impacts, there is a need for additional partnerships and a more diverse set of projects to fulfill CWS portfolios. Shared water challenges call for collective action to address complex issues from multiple angles. Water infrastructure projects that directly impact water availability, drought resiliency, and climate change can be critical to CWS program goal advancement. Key to this transition is the identification of water infrastructure projects that can meet CWS priorities and be competitive with current metrics (i.e., volume requirements, cost-effectiveness, short implementation timeline, and co-benefits).

Utility-led initiatives are uniquely positioned to develop projects that are contextually appropriate and prioritize long-term sustainability. Furthermore, projects such as leak repairs, aquifer recharge, stormwater management, water reuse, and others are appealing to CWS programs because they provide direct, quantifiable, and long-term water replenishment benefits.

As a result, CWS programs funding utility projects can confidently report the measured quantitative impact they supported, coupled with a community benefits and declaration of effective local partnerships. In turn, utilities get additional and more flexible project funding.

See Part 3 for a deeper dive into the potential win-win benefits of utility-led projects to promote innovation and resilience in our water systems. 

About The Authors

Dr. Patricia Whitby is Brown and Caldwell’s Water Stewardship Program Implementation Lead based in Colorado. In this role she supports clients in developing the framework to deliver on water commitments. This includes resources and processes designed to capture and report the right metrics for each client's program.

Dr. Carla De Las Casas leads Brown and Caldwell’s Water Stewardship team. She is passionate about supporting clients in developing and executing their water stewardship strategies to positively impact our watersheds and create thriving communities. Identifying opportunities for win-win collaboration between public and private sectors to address our shared water challenges and manage risks is a major area of focus of Brown and Caldwell’s Water Stewardship team.  

Headquartered in Walnut Creek, California, Brown and Caldwell is a full-service environmental engineering and construction services firm with 52 offices and over 1,900 professionals across North America and the Pacific. For more than 75 years, our creative solutions have helped municipalities, private industry, and government agencies successfully overcome their most challenging water and environmental obstacles. As an employee-owned company, Brown and Caldwell is passionate about exceeding our clients’ expectations and making a difference for our employees, our communities, and our environment. For more information, visit


We would like to thank Ted Douglass (Impact Sustainability, LLC) for his valuable contributions to this article.