Coca-Cola will emphasize projects that can be done fairly easily and improve resources in areas where the company withdraws water for production, said Bruce Karas, the company’s vice president of environment and sustainability for North America.
“Water stewardship is a key focus because ... it’s in every product,” Karas said, adding that the company has pledged by 2020 to replenish as much water as it uses. The company has worked with universities and other organizations in the past, but partnering with the USDA could help it get the most from its investment because national forest lands often are the headwaters for important watersheds, Karas said.
The importance of restoring watersheds can’t be overstated, especially with climate change leading to weather extremes such as flooding and drought — and potentially more frequent and larger fires — at the same time manufacturers, residents and farmers increasingly compete for water, Vilsack said.
That’s particularly true in the West, he said, where wildfires have stripped the land of trees and other vegetation that once helped absorb water. The land, he said, “hardens like cement so rain runs off in a torrent” with ash, sludge and debris that makes its way into rivers and reservoirs. What’s more, the drinking water for about 60 million Americans originates in the national forest system.
“It’s about the quantity of water and availability,” he said.