Wishing upon a star for stronger water stewardship

As the lights over Paradise Bay dim, eager spectators gasp and cheer in anticipation. Music rings out, and after a few moments of dramatic buildup, powerful fountains spring to life over the water, illuminated by an almost dizzying array of choreographed lights. In an awe-inspiring display of vivid color, radiant music, and majestic water, Disney’s “World of Color” show begins.

The Submarine Lagoon at Disneyland.

The Submarine Lagoon at Disneyland.

I’ve always loved Disney theme parks, but as my environmental consciousness has grown, so has my recognition of the the parks’ environmental impacts. Disneyland and California Adventure consume massive quantities of energy and water, generate enormous amounts of waste, and pollute our atmosphere with huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Seriously, look at the data—it’s terrifying, and those footprints become even larger when you consider the automobile traffic that the parks generate. And that’s without even getting into the fact that Walt Disney famously paved over a 160-acre orange grove to build Disneyland. (Although at least one original tree is still standing.)

Don’t get me wrong—I grew up going to Disneyland with my family, and I love it there. Some of that love stems from nostalgia, but mostly it stems from the thrill of rides like Space Mountain and Grizzly River Run, from the wonder of watching fireworks light up the night sky over Sleeping Beauty Castle, and from the majesty and technological marvel of shows like World of Color. But that pure enjoyment is difficult to reconcile with an understanding of environmental impacts.

Unless, of course, it isn’t.

Paradise Bay in Disney California Adventure.

Paradise Bay in Disney California Adventure.

Let’s go back to World of Color for a minute. When Disney started to plan the show in 2008, it needed to drain Paradise Bay—a central feature of California Adventure—so as to install the fountains. But rather than dump 16 million gallons of water into the ocean—which Disney had permission to do—the company chose to pump the water into Orange County’s state-of-the-art Groundwater Replenishment System, even though this process was six times more expensive. The system purified the water before adding it to the local aquifer, a source of water for hundreds of thousands of Orange County residents. When the fountain installation finished about a year later, Disney pumped water back from the aquifer to the park.

That’s just one project, but a perusal of The Walt Disney Company’s environmental stewardship website reveals a serious effort at corporate sustainability. Perhaps most impressive is the company’s ambitious goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of reductions, efficiencies, and offsets. (While reducing actual emissions to zero would be even better, that’s obviously not realistic—and I don’t think anyone is complaining that Disney is funding efforts to fight deforestation in Peru, the United States, China, and other countries.) Between 2009 and 2012, Disney cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, largely thanks to an innovative strategy in which its business units are charged for their share of the company’s overall emissions. It’s kind of like a carbon tax. (Congress, are you reading this?)

In other areas, too, Disney’s environmental efforts seem robust. The company reduced its electricity consumption by 10 percent between 2006 and 2012; during the same period, the theme parks division cut the waste it sent to landfills by 50 percent. (The company’s long-term goal is to send zero waste to landfills.) In an effort to have a net positive impact on ecosystems, Disney’s conservation fund distributed more than $4 million to various projects last year. And that’s just a sampling of a fairly long list of goals and accomplishments.

Disneyland's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fountain.

Disneyland’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fountain.

I’m no expert in corporate sustainability, but that all seems legit to me. There’s a debate to be had about whether global conglomerates like Disney can ever be considered environmentally “friendly,” but as long as these companies are going to interact with the environment in such diverse ways, we’re better off if they do so in the least harmful way possible. Disney, perhaps, can be a model for other large media companies, spurring its competitors to action.

There’s one area, though, where Disney is definitely not where it needs to be: water. Creative bay-draining strategy aside, the company has yet to identify serious, quantifiable goals for water-use reduction, with its website saying only that it is working to “minimize water use.” The site promises that “Water Conservation Plans” will be adopted for “all major locations” by 2012, but as we near the end of 2013, it’s unclear whether these plans have been developed, let alone implemented. It’s also troubling that water quality doesn’t seem to be much of a planning focus. Water conservation is important for any major company, but so is ensuring that it is not contaminating local water supplies.

The Rivers of America, a central feature of Disneyland.

The Rivers of America, a central feature of Disneyland.

To be fair, Disney has taken important steps to reduce water use at many of its theme parks and other properties, including the use of low-flow toilets, drip irrigation, and complex recycling systems. At Disneyland, there’s a water-quality master plan in place to manage storm water runoff and increase groundwater recharge, and most of the storm drains serving the park’s bodies of water “flow to hydraulically connected watderways that recycle water while providing natural biological treatment,” according to Water for Tomorrow. Several other Disney theme parks have implemented similar techniques—including Walt Disney World in Florida, where reclaimed water is used for more than three-quarters of the parks’ irrigation.

At the macro level, though, Disney’s lack of clear, robust, company-wide goals for water reduction and water quality is concerning. As water crises brew at the local, national, and international levels, it is critical that influential global corporations like Disney lead the way on water. Especially for those of us in countries where water scarcity has not yet become a concern, they need to set an example that we cannot take the availability of clean water for granted.

I hope that by the next time I go to Disneyland, the company will be working hard to implement ambitious water conservation and water quality goals. That way, when I get soaked going through the rapids of Grizzly River Run, and when I admire the illuminated fountains of World of Color, I’ll have a whole new reason to appreciate the experience.

WOC ending

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