How and Why Coca-Cola is Restoring Water to Our National Forests

When I stepped out of the U.S. Forest Service SUV after nearly a two-hour scenic autumn drive from Taos, New Mexico to the Carson National Forest, we were standing in an expansive valley so big that huge cows below us looked like mere dots in the distance. We had finally arrived at Valle Vidal, a massive grassy meadow with vistas as far as the eye could see and elevations reaching close to 13,000 feet in Carson National Forest. Even though Valle Vidal is overwhelmingly beautiful to take in its environmental impact is being increasingly hampered by major stream and groundwater degradation that needs immediate remedying in order to protect fish and wildlife as well as to store more ground water for communities downstream.

I was in New Mexico visiting the Carson National Forest with Coca-Cola North America’s sustainability team last week to learn about their water restoration efforts in northern New Mexico as well as the company’s overarching nationwide partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and National Forest Foundation that replenished 1 billion liters of water to nature and communities reaching 60 million people in the United States. Coca-Cola also recently announced that it has successfully reached one of its principle global sustainability milestones ahead of schedule to effectively balance its water usage in its beverages and production. Coca-Cola has reached its goal five years ahead by replenishing 191.9 billion liters of water across the globe in 71 countries. In the United States, Coca-Cola North America has pledged to double the 1 billion liters of water that it has already replenished by 2018.

Valle Vidal

Valle Vidal, while one of the most gorgeous panoramic views I’ve ever seen, is plagued by a host of headcuts that dry out its meadows. Headcuts can be technically complicated to understand by the average person, but liken it to deep erosion in the land that prevents water from successfully flowing from the peaks and absorbing into the ground in order to reserve rain water and snow runoff. With the sheer amount of headcuts and soil erosion Valle Vidal is in desperate need of human intervention to increase groundwater storage and to be rewetted according to Michael Gatlin, U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist. Valle Vidal is also a priority area because of its great influence on nearby streams.

“There is lots of water storage potential here,” said Mollie Walton, Land and Water Program Director for the Quivira Coalition, a Sante Fe-based environmental nonprofit organization. “The replenishment value would be really tremendous.”

Coca-Cola is working to restore water to areas of the Carson National Forest because when it gives water back to the environment, it keeps communities and consumers downstream healthy. Plus, it is the right thing to do as water stewards. In fact, Coca-Cola is the first Fortune 500 Company to reach complete water replenishment globally, a goal it set in 2007.

Upper Comanche Creek Watershed

Upper Comanche Creek Watershed. Restoration funded by Coca-Cola.

In sharp contrast to Valle Vidal is the Upper Comanche Creek Watershed where its water restoration was funded by Coca-Cola and expertise was provided by the aforementioned national partners as well as by additional regional partnerships.

Walking through the Upper Comanche Creek Watershed, I first noticed that there was actual water flowing through the grasslands and I could hear the stream bubbling across logs that repaired headcuts. This was a far better outcome than the unnaturally dry Valle Vidal that has been degraded due to historic mining, cattle overuse, and logging. Today, however, ranchers who are part of the Valle Vidal Grazing Association are working alongside the U.S. Forest Service to rest the pasture and ensure that their cattle herds do not trample restored creek beds and remain off of streamside vegetation.

Cattle grazing in Valle Vidal has been limited in order to allow pastures to rest

“We are in the business of raising beef,” said Mark Torrez, head of the Grazing Association and one of the U.S. Forest Service’s most important partners in Carson National Forest. “We benefit the most of every group.”

According to Michael Gatlin, Fisheries Biologist, while there is visible evidence of a restored creek in the Upper Comanche Creek Watershed, the ground is also rewetted as far back as the tree-line from increased ground water. To date, Coca-Cola and its partners have replenished 182 million liters of water in Carson National Forest. The partners have also restored 191 acres of wetland, planted 1,200 native trees and shrubs and installed 67 stream restoration structures in six additional national forests including Carson.

When ground water is restored and headcuts efficiently repaired native species are allowed to thrive as they once had years ago. New Mexico’s state fish, the cutthroat trout, which has been on the decline for the past few decades and could potentially become an endangered species, can make a successful comeback when the Carson National Forest watersheds are restored. This restoration, however, takes a concerted effort by public-private partnerships that incorporate not only project funding, but training, expertise, and measuring.

Restoration Measuring

Measurements, which can become tedious in natural landscapes that are vast, are the cornerstone to determining if restoration projects are yielding the best results and whether the projects can and should be replicated in other national parks and scaled. So much time, money, and skill is put into restoration efforts that deeper measurements can sometimes become an afterthought.

“We are going to have to work very hard to measure what we’re doing,” said Bruce Karas, Vice President, Environment and Sustainability, Coca-Cola North America. “We really have to be deliberate about measuring.”

Measuring possibilities in Carson National Forest include photomapping, closely watching vegetation, collecting incremental water temperature data, as well as using drones to detect restoration improvements or no improvements at all. One of the crucial aspects of the restoration process for Coca-Cola, however, is to ensure that by whatever methods measurements are made.


What’s Next?

In order for Valle Vidal to become as successfully rewetted as the Upper Comanche Creek Watershed it will have to first be mapped for headcuts and soil erosion in order to determine where water restoration must first occur. Experts were quick to say that since Valle Vidal is so massive it is important to restore areas that will have the greatest impact on nearby wetlands, streams and creeks. After the area is mapped, public-private partnerships must again coalesces. Much can be done when organizations, foundations, and companies, even volunteers, come together to improve water sustainability and the overall environment. The Upper Comanche Creek Watershed is proof of that.

Disclosure: Thank you Coca-Cola for the trip.

Photos: Jennifer James

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