05/08/2013 02:41 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Help Keep the Water Flowing

I live in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. Actually, we've got 11,842 named lakes of more than ten acres in size, but "10,000 lakes" looks better on our license plates. In any case, I know water -- and I'm worried about it.

Specifically, I'm worried about how we take care of our water supply today -- and whether we're doing enough to protect it for tomorrow.

Let's start with today. Are we really doing everything we can to keep our water clean? And what about wasting water -- can we do more to conserve this precious resource?

As far as cleanliness, our track record is somewhat on the dirty side. The fertilizer and chemicals we put on our lawns create runoff that flows into our storm sewers, affecting our fresh water supplies. The prescription drugs and chemicals we flush down our drains get added to our water resources. Clearly, these chemicals from our everyday lives contaminate our fresh water resources -- and polluted water is the same as having no water at all.

How about preserving water? Do we water our lawns more than necessary? Do we take more showers than we need? When you consider that, in some parts of the world, people walk for hours just to get a minimal supply of drinking water, it's hard to justify our continual overuse.

So, what can we do? We might consider employing rain barrels, which catch and store rainwater runoff from the roof, and rain gardens, which help absorb runoff before it can flow into storm drains. And of course, we can refrain from over-soaking our lawns, running our dishwashers only when necessary, and doing all those other little things around the house that can add up to real savings in our water usage.

In short, we can be stewards of our water supply.

The definition of stewardship is "responsibly managing what others have entrusted to our care." The environment was entrusted to our care -- so it's our responsibility to ensure there is clean and plentiful water available for future generations.

To help ensure this outcome, we need to take steps today that will have a positive impact on tomorrow. And that means we should consider putting our money where our hopes are -- by making smart investments.

Of course, advancing societal goals through investments is nothing new. For many years, people have engaged in socially responsible investing (SRI) by not investing in certain companies, such as those that make cigarettes, exploit child labor or manufacture land mines. But SRI is also about taking action in positive ways. Consider "mission-related" for investments in companies that offer innovative solutions to challenges like water scarcity or renewable energy.

So, how can we invest in water? Basically, we have a couple choices: utilities and infrastructure.

Utilities -- An investment in water utility companies can help them upgrade their facilities to increase the efficiency of water delivery. Generally speaking, investments in utilities have provided consistent dividend payments. However, don't look for spectacular growth of your investment dollars. Most utilities, at least in the U.S., are highly regulated entities, so governmental agencies can cap what the utilities charge, thereby limiting their profitability.

Infrastructure -- The infrastructure sector may be the most attractive investment segment in the water industry. Developing nations have too few water systems, and some of the ones they do have are substandard. And developed nations need to upgrade their existing infrastructure because water facilities and water distribution systems are old, deteriorating and in need of repair. Water infrastructure investments can include businesses involved in construction or consulting and companies that have developed desalination techniques that can convert salt water to fresh water.

Refusing to use contaminants....cutting down our water usage....investing in companies that help promote viable water usage and safety ... if only you and I do these things, will it make much of a difference? Consider the words of famed ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau:
"For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."

He believed an individual person could make a difference, and so do I.