Going With the Flow Colleges Get Serious About Saving Water

Colleges and universities consume huge quantities of water through dorms, cafeterias, athletic facilities and in maintaining their rolling green grounds. Recognizing the impact they have on a fast-dwindling resource, many schools have made small adjustments, but most have not yet mounted the major initiatives necessary to really conserve water.

There are more than 3,800 institutions of higher education in America, and most have engaged in some sort of water-saving program. Toilets and urinals that use low water volume and low-flow showerheads and faucets are, according to Niles Barnes of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), “pretty much standard practice across U.S. colleges today.”

Thirty-eight colleges have gone a step further. By adhering to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, they are pursuing real water conservation. “The rating system gives points for managing runoff, controlling discharge water and limiting use of potable water for irrigation,” says Ashley Katz, communications coordinator for the USGBC. Following severe water shortages, a few colleges have stepped up to meet the conservation challenge.

North Carolina’s Duke University is one of the best, having reduced water use on campus by 26 percent, just four percent shy of its goal. Motivated by a regional history of severe drought and strong student support, the school (the biggest water user in dry Durham County) stands out. “Water is now our priority,” says Tavey McDaniel, environmental sustainability coordinator at Duke.

Last December, the school handed out 5,000 low-flow showerheads to off-campus students and staff, drawing on a $5 million water conservation fund. The new website Water Conservation @ Duke has received more than 300 water conservation tips, says McDaniel.

On the west coast, chronic drought and arid conditions bring special relevance to water conservation. The University of California in Santa Barbara has a very aggressive water program, made possible by the Campus Sustainability Energy and Water Team, a group of faculty and students led by co-chair Mo Lovegreen. Focus is on housing, which is responsible for more than half the university’s water consumption. So far, efforts have focused on changing fixtures (installing low-flow taps and more than 50 waterless urinals) and educating students. “College students take really long showers,” points out Lovegreen, who adds that a water-reduction competition between dorms is one strategy the university is using to promote conservation.

In the 1980s, a severe drought left the campus a dull brown. Today, 94 percent of campus grounds are kept green with reclaimed water. Other innovative projects include a central closed-loop chilled water system that captures condensation and replaces individual air-conditioning units in 14 buildings.

Other colleges with abundant available water haven’t yet made saving a top priority. But conserving water will be one of the major challenges in our new century, and universities are likely to be at the forefront of the new blue movement.