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Making Every Drop Count: UC San Diego Steps Up Water Conservation Efforts

From turning off fountains to eliminating turf, UC San Diego is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to conserve water and take additional action under Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent mandate to cut water usage.

“Located as we are in a semi-arid climate, UC San Diego has had ambitious water-saving goals for many years,” said Gary C. Matthews, vice chancellor for Resource Management and Planning. “But with the severity of the drought, water conservation has become our greatest priority and we are exploring every avenue to reduce all non-essential water consumption.”

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Leaving lawns high and dry

Prior to the governor’s mandate, UC San Diego already had a Water Action Plan in place, detailing how the campus was working towards the University of California goal to reduce campus-wide potable water use by 20 percent by 2020. Since the drought was declared and water use restrictions went into effect, the campus has been looking at even more ways to conserve water. Reducing or eliminating irrigation of ornamental turf has been one such method.

“We stopped watering 54,000 square feet of turf, saving 1.53 million gallons of water per year,” said John Dilliott, associate director for energy and utilities. “We also have plans to eliminate another 136,037 square feet of turf, which should save 4 million gallons of potable water a year.”

In addition to turf conversion, the campus is currently replacing Muir Field with artificial turf, a move that will reduce irrigation by approximately 2 million gallons a year. The campus had already replaced approximately 6,650 irrigation heads with water efficient, low-volume versions that will save 7.2 million gallons of potable water a year. Irrigation throughout campus was also shut off from December 2014 to January 2015 and now, what little irrigation is done, is done only at night.

But lush lawns haven’t been the only casualty of the drought. Most recently, ornamental fountains have been turned off as part of the campus’s response and are limited to running for an hour, three nights a week for maintenance purposes.

“While the fountains do re-circulate their water, it’s still potable water that’s being used,” said Dilliott. “Saving every drop of water is important, but we’re working especially hard to conserve potable water.”

Big projects make a big impact

What’s going on “behind-the-scenes” will have a significant impact on the campus’s efforts to conserve water. Recycled water is already in use at the university’s East Campus Utilities Plant and will offset potable water use in the plant’s cooling towers. The same thing is being done at the Central Utilities Plant, with recycled water expected to be in use there by the end of 2015. These two projects alone are anticipated to reduce potable water use by 120 million gallons per year in 2016.

The Medical Center is also planning to bring recycled water to the utility plant on the La Jolla Health System campus. Potable water use is expected to be reduced by 20 million gallons a year by the end of 2016.

The use of water efficient plumbing fixtures is also key to conservation efforts. The Medical Center has already retrofitted faucets and showerheads at its Hillcrest and La Jolla Health System campuses with fixtures that should save more than 4 million gallons of potable water a year. These new fixtures, and other plumbing fixtures, will also be installed in all new development at UC San Diego, and will replace aging infrastructure on an ongoing basis. Already, 24 buildings on campus have been identified for water fixture retrofits this year and next. Approximately 20 million gallons of potable water should be saved each year once the work is completed.

Water metering is also an important part of conservation efforts. The university has 494 water meters in place of which approximately one-third are smart meters. Thanks to the cost-savings realized through implementing previous water conservation projects, UC San Diego will be able to purchase and install enough smart meters to fully cover the entire campus.

“With smart meters, we get real-time data,” explained Dilliott. “This means we can catch a leak as soon as it happens rather than waiting a month to get data from an old meter. This can save us thousands of gallons of water each year.”

Purchase and installation of the smart water meters is ongoing with the biggest building water users on campus being targeted first. All new meters should be installed before the end of 2016.

Tritons fight the drought together

Making operational changes is not the only way to conserve water. Efforts are gearing up to help educate the campus community on how to save water.

Krista Mays, sustainability manager for Housing, Dining and Hospitality, has been part of the effort to educate residents, typically the biggest campus water consumers, by sharing water conservation tips and information.

“Outreach is extremely important,” she said. “We’ve placed water conservation statistics on mirrors in all of our facilities and have been sharing information through presentations and handouts when possible. We continue to look for ways to do more.”

UC San Diego’s Aquaholics Anonymous also promotes water conservation on campus. Founded in 2009, the group comprises students, staff and faculty who are focused on combating water “addiction” through changes in behavior. The group developed a 12-Step Recovery Program to conserve water and provides resources that can be used for education and outreach.

In addition to these efforts, UC San Diego is also planning to create more educational materials and find other ways to encourage water conservation.

“There is so much that we as individuals can do, whether it’s turning the faucet off while we brush our teeth or using a shower timer to take shorter showers,” said Sara McKinstry, Campus Sustainability Manager. “We’re working together across campus to start getting that information out there.”

As part of that effort, McKinstry has been promoting outreach through social media, asking people to share what they’re doing to save water through photos, short videos, tweets, Facebook posts and more using the hashtag #TritonsSaveH2O. All the tips will be compiled and shared on the Sustainability website and through SustainUCSD’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“Sharing ideas helps others save water and shows that we’re all Tritons fighting the drought together,” she said. “If each of us at UC San Diego reduced our water use by a gallon a day, we would save more than 18 million gallons a year.”

And that’s no drop in the bucket.