As Water Scarcity Looms, This Mega-Bank Is Backing Technological Fixes

Drought continues to scorch the West, and water scarcity is catching the attention of more corporations and funders. One example is Wells Fargo, which is tackling the problem within its growing environmental portfolio. 

Since 2012, the megabank has been pursuing some aggressive new environmental giving goals—seeking to give $100 million by 2020—and in the past year or so, water technology and drought have emerged as a focus amid its mix of conservation and clean tech grants. 

Related: The Winners So Far in Wells Fargo’s Adventure in Green Giving

For example, in the company’s Clean Technology and Innovation Grants program, the number of grantees in the category of sustainable ag/water nearly doubled, including four grants specifically toward drought relief in the West. Also, the company recently extended its support for water technology nonprofit Imagine H2O, with a $1 million commitment. 

Water scarcity is one of our most pressing global problems, threatening everything from agriculture to security, and the drought in the West has forced the issue to the forefront for many stakeholders. While many companies have been slow to respond, some are coming around to the importance of improving inefficient water systems. 

As one writer recently pointed out, this is of direct and immediate interest to the financial sector, undoubtedly leading players like Bank of America and Wells Fargo to back work in the field. Wells Fargo, in particular, has been the country's leading agricultural lender among commercial banks for 17 consecutive years, meaning water scarcity issues and drought could affect its business, big time. Oh, and just think of the wave of foreclosures that could happen in regions that run short of water, devaluing home prices and even creating water refugees. 

Funding water technology and innovation also fits within Wells Fargo’s venture capital-like approach to environmental issues, backing tech incubators and even launching its own with the DOE and a $10 million investment. In fact, a huge component of the bank's environmental focus is investing, moreso than grantmaking. 

Related: Wells Fargo Gets its Hands Dirty with Cleantech

One of the company’s favorite beneficiaries for its water funding is Imagine H2O, which is sort of a tech incubator just for water systems. The nonprofit cites only 1 percent of venture capital and angel investment dollars going to water innovation, and it launched in 2007 to fill that gap. Wells Fargo has supported the group with funding and volunteer time since 2009, and made the $1 million commitment in March. 

The organization takes a mostly entrepreneurial approach—supporting startups with an annual competition, and providing funding and leadership to businesses, as well as some policy work. Winners in the recently announced Water Infrastructure Competition include one startup doing data analytics and modeling of water usage, and another developing more efficient materials.  

But the list of recent water grantees covers a lot of ground, including the United Farm Workers for drought relief and conservation outreach, and multiple university programs to study sustainable agriculture and water systems. Many water-related grants went to California in 2014, but also to other states like North Carolina and New York.  

Again, Wells Fargo heavily emphasizes its financing power when it comes to environmental work, with green grants a relatively small part of the whole. But the bank's environmental giving is definitely something to watch. 

Related: Wells Fargo: Grants for Climate and Energy