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Campus Surpasses UC President’s Water Conservation Request

March 6, 2014

Conserving resources is just a part of the fabric of UC Merced. So it should come as no surprise that university leaders say the campus can not only meet President Janet Napolitano’s call to cut water consumption by 20 percent by 2020, it has already  exceeded that expectation – this year.

“The University of California system is already a leader in water conservation and UC Merced uses less water than the average UC campus,”Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management Graeme Mitchell said. “We’re good environmental stewards, but we can be even better.”

Napolitano announced the new initiative to cut per capita water use just after the first of the year, saying that as California experiences the driest winter on record, the UC must do its part to preserve the state's most precious resource.

UC Merced is always out front when it comes to sustainability issues. As of the 2012-13 school year, UC Merced has reduced its per capita water use by 43 percent since 2007. Individual staff and faculty member and student use went from 22,564 gallons a year to 13,290. That’s already almost 4,761 gallons under the goal of 20 percent reduction set by Napolitano for 2020.

But Mitchell said the campus can do even more. One plan can potentially reduce the consumption of potable water on campus by 40 percent per year.

Mitchell would also like to see the campus recycle its gray water – the dirty water that results from people washing their hands, showering and washing dishes. This water usually just goes down the drain and leaves the campus, so piping would need to be installed to capture this water so it could be used again. The campus has specific irrigation pipes that could be connected to a gray-water system. By filtering it, gray water can be clean enough to be used for watering the landscaping.

“The University of California has long been a leader in conservation efforts,” Napolitano said. “This new 2020 goal complements the university's Carbon Neutrality Initiative and its broader award-winning sustainability efforts. UC is prepared to play a leadership role in response to California's current water crisis by demonstrating water sustainability solutions to the rest of the state.”

UC Merced’s design – from inception – has incorporated goals that are 40 percent below other UC campuses’ baseline usage of other resources, like electricity. The campus infrastructure is designed to conserve water, from its native-plant landscaping and drought-resistant, permeable pavement, to its storm-water retention.

The campus’s drinking, sewer and irrigation water is all metered and audited, and each building is metered so officials can see real-time usage. That metering system is used each year for a residence-hall competition to see which building can cut the most water use. That competition was started by a student, and although he has since graduated, the effort continues.

The monitoring system also continuously checks for leaks so not a drop is lost, and the School of Engineering is working with Facilities Management to install soil-moisture sensors to help control the amount of water used to keep the campus looking green and pretty.

Around campus, many staff and faculty members are taking steps to reduce their personal water consumption, too. Mitchell is installing planting beds with herbs and gravel pathways and removing the water intensive lawns at his home near the campus. Native and drought tolerant plants need far less water than a lawn.

Other people on campus are taking steps, too, to help conserve.

James Brugger, senior mechanical engineer for the campus, said two of the biggest sources of water waste at residences are found in irrigation and in waiting for hot water at fixtures. 

“We have no lawn in the back yard. Instead, we planted trees and shrubs that are native to California and require little to no water once established,” Brugger said. “We also use 3-4 inches of mulch to reduce weeds and help retain moisture in the soil.”

He and his family have also cut back on watering any lawn they do have, and created retention basins for their downspouts to slow runoff and allow some rain water to percolate instead of just running into the street. 

The Bruggers are also in the process of installing an on-demand hot water recirculation system on their water heater. That could save hundreds of gallons each month that would normally be wasted waiting for hot water.

Matt Hirota, the campus waste-reduction and recycle coordinator, said he simply shut off the water for his lawn, and at a rental home he owns, built a raised-bed garden with drip irrigation in the front yard instead of any lawn.