Turn off the tap: The story of water conservation at UC Santa Cruz

Sarah Latham

Water conservation has long been an important part of environmental stewardship at UC Santa Cruz. Today, the campus uses about 178 million gallons of water annually–scarcely more water than the 170 million gallons we used in 1993-94, despite having nearly 7,000 more students.

We have kept a lid on water use by investing in infrastructure, education, and outreach. This longstanding commitment to water conservation has helped us exceed the City of Santa Cruz's current mandate to reduce our use by 20 percent from 2012-13 levels. As the campus, community, and state confront the specter of unprecedented drought, we are taking additional short-term and long-term steps to be even more frugal with water.

Our current efforts build on work that began in 2007, when the campus conducted a major water efficiency study. The study identified 19 high-impact projects, all of which were completed by 2013. We retrofitted plumbing fixtures, replaced turf, improved our metering and monitoring program to capture more fine-grained data about our water use, and launched educational programs for students who live on campus. These smart investments have saved – and will continue to save – about 30 million gallons annually.

And we're not done. Residential students account for about 50 percent of campus water consumption, and our students have been great partners in raising awareness about the need to conserve. Our Student Environmental Center even sponsored a friendly water-reduction competition among colleges and residence halls as part of its outreach.

The campus is investing in new water-conservation projects this academic year. We will be installing more meters, removing more turf, replacing more high-flow toilets, testing a water-wise alternative to water-guzzling sterilization systems in labs, and installing weather-smart irrigation timers in housing areas. Speaking of meters, we now have 450 "sub-meters" installed across campus, yielding highly detailed information about water use. These and other high-tech devices, combined with the expertise of our dedicated staff, are powerful tools that are boosting our conservation efforts.

The campus has established a Water Shortage Working Group to identify short-term projects and strategies to cope with the current drought and to ensure that the campus is abiding by current water restrictions.

Looking ahead, Chancellor Blumenthal has launched a Water Conservation Task Force to assess campus water use, target areas where use could be reduced over time, and recommend strategies to implement reductions.

Drawing on the passion of our students and the strength of faculty research, we are well-positioned to continue our role as a water-conservation leader and a strong partner in the work of finding long-term solutions. A number of faculty are engaged in water-related research, including Andy Fisher, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Brent Haddad, professor of environmental studies and technology management and director of the Center for Integrated Water Research. For students, water issues are an integral part of the curriculum in courses such as Freshwater Ecology, Agroecosystem Analysis and Watershed Management, and California Water Law and Policy.

For all of us, water conservation must become a way of life. Please do your part. Water conservation tips are available online, as is more information about campus water-conservation efforts.