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Saving Water, Ford Sees Two Shades of Green

But top state business groups resist Granholm’s conservation proposals

March 25, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Center employs many water- and energy-saving strategies.

DEARBORN — While Michigan’s top business associations continue their active opposition to proposed state legislation requiring more efficient water use, one of the state’s largest companies is sharply reducing its own water consumption, saving large amounts of money by doing so, and urging fellow manufacturers to do the same.

Asserting that industrial use of water “must be more rigorously managed in the future,” Ford Motor Company officials announced on Monday that the increasingly inadequate capacity of public water facilities and concern about the future availability of fresh water are driving their firm to aggressively pursue sustainable water use practices.

"Despite common assumptions that water is cheap and plentiful, it's not," said Tim O'Brien, vice president of corporate relations at Ford. "Dirty, wasted water isn't renewable and it's no longer available to the public. We understand we have a responsibility to adopt water practices that protect this resource and insure that it's available for all users."

The company said that by repairing leaks, learning and applying wastewater recycling techniques, and constantly recalculating its freshwater demands, Ford cut its global water consumption by 19 percent and has saved more than five billion gallons in less than five years. A single plant in Livonia, for example, reduced water use by 27 percent in a single year.

Ford’s announcement was meant to demonstrate its commitment to becoming a “greener” company. But the statement also presents a tacit challenge to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Manufacturers Association. Both organizations are pressuring Michigan’s Republican-led state Legislature to ignore proposals, particularly Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Water Legacy Act, that would push businesses toward more efficient water use. The organizations have helped convince conservative lawmakers to stall Governor Granholm’s proposal for a year by claiming that it would harm the state’s business climate, ailing economy, and competitive position.

But Ford’s announcement indicates that the opposite is true. The company said that reducing its water consumption is brightening its balance sheet, which is troubled by sluggish sales, rising business costs, and increasing global competition. The automaker did not release a total of dollars saved, but claimed savings are in the millions of dollars. It did say that Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant saved $120,000 in water acquisition and treatment costs by reducing water consumption there by 125 million gallons.

Saving Water and Money
The idea that striving for water conservation can spur money-saving innovations within a company is fairly new to Michigan. Yet that is exactly what Ford did when it developed a new, patent-pending process that helps its factories better track and manage water use. The company built a database that tracks both water and energy use throughout its worldwide operation, and designed a new computer program that enables plant managers to more easily calculate water needs based on complicated engineering algorithms. The tool enables the company to eliminate wasteful practices and operate more effectively.

“The water estimation tool became critical to our conservation efforts,” said Bob Devlin, a co-manager of Ford’s water conservation and management team. “A plant gets a water bill just like any homeowner, only it’s much bigger. By using the tool, plants now can get a specific idea of where and how much water they should be using compared to what they are using. This helps us focus on particular areas that are overusing water.”

Overall, the automaker reported, its aggressive conservation program lowered the amount of water required per vehicle produced by two cubic meters, from 15 to 13. The program is so effective at the Kansas City plant that, even though production of the F-150 truck, Escape SUV, and other vehicles jumped 30 percent there, the plant lowered its total water use — and related expense. Such cost cutting is crucial to companies intent on prospering in the 21st century’s global markets.

Ford is applying its newfound know-how worldwide. The company’s assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico is adopting water conservation practices that will allow it to increase vehicle production without driving up water needs and costs. A plant in Germany is developing new water treatment technologies to slash water consumption. And a plant in India is recycling wastewater to reduce disposal costs and supply specific production needs. What’s more, the company reports that other manufacturers have begun to follow Ford’s lead.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Chamber and MMA continue to strongly oppose Ms. Granholm’s proposal, as well as previous measures drawn up by several Republican lawmakers that were designed to encourage water conservation by regulating water withdrawals. The Legislature has killed a number of different water conservation bills in recent years, essentially leaving Michigan 20 years behind neighboring Great Lakes states in water policy development. Water resource experts contend the lack of political action leaves the state vulnerable to local overuse, environmental degradation, and proposals to export large amounts of water from the region.

Conservation Equals Competitiveness
Governor Granholm’s legislation would establish, for the first time in Michigan history, basic standards to ensure that major water withdrawals do not affect nearby streams, wetlands, or neighboring water users. It would also direct major water users to develop a conservation plan, much like Ford did, to track basic flow rates, manage demand, and continually improve water use habits.

Water experts and Ford’s own efforts indicate that water conservation saves more than water and the money it costs to buy it. Reducing water use also reduces the amount of energy required to move water, the amount of chemicals necessary to treat it, and the fees associated with wastewater and chemical disposal.

Yet many of Michigan’s industrial water users continue to view water conservation as unnecessary because the state sits literally in the middle of the planet’s most bountiful supply of fresh water. Water conservation proponents agree that the Great Lakes are in no immediate danger of draining away, but some of them say that Ford’s experience confirms that, in the global economy, remaining competitive is not so much about how much water a business can access inexpensively, but rather how efficiently the business uses it.

But the Michigan Chamber and MMA insist that the water conservation standards in the Granholm proposal will hinder economic competitiveness, not improve it.

“We have a whole host of members concerned about the conservation standards,” said Doug Roberts, Jr., director of environmental and regulatory affairs at the Michigan Chamber in a February 10 public forum on state water policy. “The legislation says that by next year you must submit a conservation plan but no details have been created. So this is more uncertainty for business.”

MMA’s Mike Johnston said the global marketplace is threatening Michigan’s manufacturers.

“It’s difficult for a legacy industrial state to compete in a global market when places like China and Mexico can make products like cars cheaper,” said Mr. Johnston, who is MMA’s director of regulatory affairs. “We have to compete in that environment.”

But the Michigan Chamber and the MMA have yet to publicly acknowledge the competitive advantage created by requiring large-scale water users to begin using that resource more efficiently.

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about sustaining the Great Lakes in the global economy, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and reports on Smart Growth from the Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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