On the Water Front
Higher education’s sustainability efforts now include conservation and smart-use initiatives to help ensure a plentiful and safe water supply for generations to come.
By Karla Hignite
If you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait a year. Or three. The latest drought cycle that has persisted across wide swaths of the state since 2010 has convinced many Texans that much more is needed to conserve the state’s precious water resources.
In fact, the Texas Water Development Board warns that if the state fails to meet its water challenges, it could lose a million jobs and forgo more than $100 billion annually in lost revenue by 2060. The state’s water plan identifies $53 billion needed for development of new water supplies, promoting conservation as a primary strategy. For 2013, the state legislature has so far allocated $2 billion. “That’s a start,” notes Calvin Finch, director of the Water Conservation and Technology Center (WCTC) in San Antonio. Launched in 2012 by Texas A&M, College Station, the center is charged with helping address the state’s long-term water needs, largely through accelerating development and adoption of conservation technologies and practices.
The fact that water demand in Texas in the coming decades is projected to grow at a slower rate than the state’s population reflects favorably on efforts already made by Texans to conserve water resources, but the Lone Star State still faces a huge challenge reconciling its water supply constraints with its unabashed pro-growth agenda, says Finch. “If as a state we are not able to provide what a particular industry might need, it’s going to set down roots elsewhere. And without assurance of adequate water supplies for the long term, those industries that are here could look to migrate elsewhere.”
Water Equals Jobs
In Wisconsin, the “water equals jobs” equation takes a different twist, and University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly is making sure higher education plays an instrumental role in the burgeoning water industry in his state. UW has teamed up with the Milwaukee Water Council—a coalition of industry, academic, and government leaders—and other regional stakeholders to establish Wisconsin as a global hub for water research, economic development, and education.
A five-campus UW water initiative will focus not only on research to develop technologies to help solve national and global water challenges, but also on training a diverse water industry workforce within the state and beyond. The university initiative is receiving guidance from the Business–Higher Education Forum, an organization of business CEOs and university presidents working to bring higher education and professional workforce interests into alignment, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
The UW system already boasts an expansive water research focus, from Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, to Madison’s Sea Grant Institute and its Center for Limnology, to Superior’s Lake Superior Research Institute and Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve. Add to these the special focus on groundwater issues at UW–Stevens Point, and UW–Whitewater’s integrated science and business water programs, and you begin to round out a pipeline of talent on deck for a host of careers in water research, water management and policy development, and water-related commerce and transportation, explains Reilly.
Through existing and expanded program opportunities, the initiative will provide more students with industry internships and hands-on research activities in water conservation and quality. It will also generate employment pathways and learning opportunities for K–12 students to get them excited about water-related jobs at the other end of their math and science coursework, says Reilly. “We’re focused on building out our capacity to complement what is taking shape in our own region and what is emerging in terms of demands for water knowledge and the sustainable use of water resources around the world.”
With freshwater sources in many parts of the United States either under stress or under threat from pollutants or aging infrastructure, much greater understanding is needed about a host of water-related impacts, notes Reilly. “The Great Lakes—the world’s largest body of freshwater—is in our backyard. The research we do here can have huge benefits nationally and globally to help us understand how to protect and sustain this resource that is vital to every aspect of our daily lives.”
While bantering about the weather may be a national pastime with regard to casual conversations with friends and neighbors, it’s not small talk. Life and livelihoods depend upon precipitation. And too much, or too little, can each cause pain.
During the past year, drought throughout portions of the Midwest had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first halting barge traffic along the Mississippi River, because of record-low water levels, then closing portions of the river once again due to damaged locks from spring flooding—flooding that could spell a total wash for some grain and legume crops. In California, the hopes of farmers for what looked like the start of a wet winter evaporated in the dry early months of this year, adding to their anxiety about adequate irrigation for another growing season in a state that produces the bulk of the nation’s winter vegetables.
Across the country, lakes, aquifers, and reservoirs are strained not only from food production for a growing population, but also from commercial and residential development, and from water-intensive industries and energy production. For instance, with the discovery of substantial domestic natural gas reserves scattered across the nation, hydraulic fracturing operations will no doubt increase. A handful of states are already considering the potential for tapping oil and gas reserves underneath their public higher education campuses, and with their significant acreage, more colleges and universities may also face this possibility.
As the United States at the federal and state levels considers its way forward in connection with natural gas exploration, leaders must weigh the welcome opportunities that hydraulic fracturing represents—for creating American jobs, stemming dependence on foreign oil, and providing new revenue streams for states and municipalities—with the real and potential negative impacts on water resources. Some communities and states are concerned about the pressure that natural gas extraction—a water-intensive process—could place on local and regional water supplies. They also have questions about impacts on water quality, including possible contamination of groundwater and freshwater drinking sources, and the treatment of residual toxic wastewater from the fracking process itself.
The current state of the nation’s water infrastructure is likewise cause for concern. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” offers a cautionary assessment of the physical condition and engineering performance of components related to U.S. dams, wastewater, and drinking water. All received a “D” or “D+”—a less-than-glowing grade for such life-sustaining infrastructure.
As with energy, the specific water concerns for colleges and universities can vary quite a bit based on geography. Yet, all face certain universal challenges and increasing expectations with regard to water conservation and water quality management.
Water even carries national security implications. This past March marked the 20th anniversary of World Water Day, an annual event established by the United Nations to emphasize the importance of freshwater for nations and their citizens around the globe. The theme—“International Year of Water Cooperation”—follows a report released on World Water Day 2012 by the U.S. State Department noting that global demand for freshwater could exceed supply by as much as 40 percent by 2030.
The “Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security” report also concludes that regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia could experience significant water challenges. For a number of countries important to the United States, these water-related issues could risk government instability or state failure, stir regional tensions, and otherwise detract from partnering with the United States on important policy goals. Water, suggests the report, is not only a human health or economic or environmental issue; it’s also a concern for peace and diplomacy.
Closer to home, where does the importance of water rank in the consciousness of the American public? Certainly the country has witnessed its share of human-generated disasters along its coasts—from the Exxon Valdez oil spill along the shores of Alaska’s Prince William Sound to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It also has weathered the persistent patterns of flooding throughout the nation’s midsection and drought across the Southwest.
Paul Rowland, former executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), believes there is a growing awareness among American citizens not only of our water-related challenges, but that more can be done to address them. “More are connecting—or at least questioning the connection—between climate change and increasingly severe weather events like Hurricane Sandy, which not only bring devastating consequences to property and life, but also disrupt the safety and security of our water supplies,” says Rowland.
Too often, however, that consciousness is short-lived. “Even in areas of the West and Southwest regions of the United States where patterns of drought have occurred for decades, interest in finding long-term solutions tends to wax and wane,” he says.
That inconsistent level of attention can also be seen within the higher education community, notes Rowland. As with energy, the specific water concerns for colleges and universities can vary quite a bit based on geography. Yet, all face certain universal challenges and increasing expectations from campus stakeholders and beyond with regard to water conservation and water quality management, he notes. These challenges present opportunities for greater efficiency efforts, innovative research, and education—and jobs—for students.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
For a good number of campuses, water may not yet be high on the list of sustainability priorities, suggests Julian Dautremont-Smith, chief sustainability officer at Alfred State College, Alfred, New York. While energy and climate change continue to dominate overall sustainability discussions at a national level, he notes, water can surge to the top of the agenda in water-stressed regions or where mandates to reduce consumption have been enacted.
Dautremont-Smith serves as steering committee chair for AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a self-reporting framework for measuring sustainability performance. The committee is in the midst of finalizing the STARS 2.0 version. “While water conservation and efficiency have always had a presence in STARS, as water-related issues have gained in prominence in recent years, we’ve had to consider how to weight this section of the rating system to reflect differential impacts based on region,” notes Dautremont-Smith. For the first time, the forthcoming version will offer more potential points for conservation efforts in water-stressed regions of the country such as the Southwest, he says.
The STARS draft under consideration covers four aspects of campus water management: consumption, water recovery and reuse, rainwater management, and wastewater treatment. The latter is a new credit under review, notes Dautremont-Smith. “This credit attempts to signal that in addition to overall consumption, also important is how water is treated once it has been used, whether by energy- and chemical-intensive conventional processes or more ecological approaches such as constructed wetlands.”
Attention to water efficiency efforts has increased at colleges and universities in recent years, confirms Rowland. According to a recent analysis by AASHE of data provided by STARS participants, among 242 reporting campuses, 172 have reduced their water consumption since the baseline year of 2005, with overall consumption reduced by approximately 16 percent. That’s proven evidence that the savings do add up when you multiply plumbing retrofits such as low-flow showerheads, low-flow and waterless urinals, and faucet aerators and timers across an entire campus, notes Rowland. Even swift attention to problem leaks can result in millions of gallons of water saved.
In addition to capturing rainwater and diverting greywater to irrigate campus landscapes, more campuses are employing adaptation strategies such as xeriscaping and xerogardening—landscaping and gardening techniques that reduce or eliminate requirements for supplemental watering. (Greywater is wastewater from domestic use in sinks or washing machines that can be reused without purification.) Other areas of campus operations such as dining services are also adopting innovative water-saving methods and technologies to curtail water use. Beyond what have become popular “dorm wars” to encourage friendly competition among students to reduce energy and water consumption, more institutions are actively tracking water use on a daily per-student or occupant basis as a critical first step to bringing greater awareness to the full campus community of the potential for significant resource savings over the course of a year.
With greater attention to water concerns and how these relate to other campus sustainability initiatives focused on energy and climate change, Rowland predicts more institutions will soon begin moving from ad hoc water projects to developing formal policies to address water consumption and use across the institution.
George Washington University (GW), Washington, D.C., is among the first higher education institutions to tackle water sustainability in a comprehensive fashion. (See sidebar, “Drops in the Bucket.”) The institution’s urban location brings additional challenges. For instance, stormwater runoff and water quality are primary issues for the nation’s capital, notes Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW’s Office of Sustainability and senior adviser on university sustainability initiatives. In addition to all the impervious surfaces of the city’s landscape, an antiquated water infrastructure that combines storm sewer and freshwater systems is cause for concern during major storm events in particular, when untreated overflow ultimately finds its way into the Chesapeake Bay.
For its part, GW’s approach to reducing the university’s impact on the Potomac River watershed reflects the same three-pronged approach that undergirds the institution’s climate action plan: reduce, innovate, and partner.
The university is testing and implementing a variety of “green infrastructure” approaches using vegetation and natural drainage processes to reduce its own runoff and is turning these into learning and research opportunities for students and faculty. Water-capture projects include a series of cisterns and rain barrels located throughout campus as sources for irrigation, and the addition of permeable surfaces such as green roofs and vegetable gardens, along with sunken flower and tree beds, allow precipitation to collect in place rather than rolling to the nearest curb and flooding storm drains.
Reducing the level of contaminants in the university’s wastewater is another top concern. GW’s target for zero pollution remains a challenge, notes Chapple-Brown. “You can’t mandate that students use paraben-free products, or fully monitor the safe disposal of pharmaceuticals, or ensure that salt or chemical treatment of snow and ice are kept to a minimum,” notes Chapple-Brown. “We still have a lot of work to do around educating our campus community about how these actions detract from water quality.”
Meanwhile, at the regional planning level, plans have been drafted to build a massive new pipe system to capture the overflow from the area’s antiquated sewer system. GW is among a growing chorus suggesting a green infrastructure alternative to a costly engineering fix, by instead implementing on a wide scale some of the basic approaches to stormwater management that the university has showcased on its campus.
Forging partnerships with policy makers, utility providers, and other institutions in the watershed to generate dialogue and seek systemwide solutions to regional water quality and sourcing issues will become a key requirement for ensuring water security in the future, suggests Chapple-Brown. In addition to collaborating with local utilities and water conservation and quality groups, GW is trying to encourage other key employers in the city—including other higher education institutions—to disclose their water footprint.
“This gives everyone an opportunity to understand how we are using this resource and the impacts of that use on the long-term health of our watershed,” says Chapple-Brown. In her view, campus water concerns must go well beyond managing potable water consumption. “When you approach this from a reductionist vantage point—looking at your water bill and thinking solely about how to reduce what you owe—this doesn’t allow you to find creative solutions to address the larger issues. This is about planning for the long-term viability and resiliency of the water system,” argues Chapple-Brown. “You really need a watershed perspective.”
Rowland concurs that greater collaboration on watershed issues is critical for college and university sustainability efforts going forward. “Important to bear in mind is that, unlike energy, where many campuses own and control their own power plants or have moved toward on-site energy production, water supplies are typically beyond the immediate control of a campus.” That means institutions must take greater responsibility for their own water consumption and use, as well as increasing their understanding about their connection to the larger watershed around them in terms of inputs and outputs, suggests Rowland. Participating in discussions with community and regional partners and user groups is a first step.
A Texas-Sized Challenge
In Texas, the challenge of developing a comprehensive water plan is exacerbated by the sheer size and geographic diversity of the state, admits the WCTC’s Finch. The eastern part of Texas, including the greater Houston area, might average 50 inches of rainfall each year, while sections in the far western part of the state typically see less than 10 inches. While in west Texas, water availability is a priority issue, in Houston, the infrastructure to handle runoff from drenching storms requires serious remedy, says Finch.
Then there are the politics. “We have groundwater districts throughout the state responsible for protecting resources in their area. A number of them are small, and they all have different rules, so it’s a very complex and often politically charged matter to try to piece together a statewide plan,” explains Finch. In addition to the groundwater districts, there are 16 regional water planning systems. The plans of those regional systems are combined to form a statewide water plan. Adding to that complexity is the fact that major population hubs often are not co-located with primary water sources, and rural areas that have sufficient access aren’t keen on seeing their supplies siphoned for ongoing urban development.
Topping it all off is the unusual system of ownership of groundwater in Texas—whoever pumps it, owns it—which doesn’t always give landowners a sense of security if someone with a bigger pump can take what’s under their feet, adds Finch. “Water is a volatile commodity in this state, and that provides job security for a lot of lawyers in Texas.”
While on the one hand it’s important to give people the time to consider water priorities and develop a philosophy of water use and habits more in tune with the resources that are available, resource managers must also grapple with what could become immediate impacts of the next drought around the corner, argues Finch.
“You can’t fully engineer a solution to develop all the water that you need. This requires some behavior change and an appropriate value placed on this critical resource that we all need,” says Finch. “The reality is that we have to better prepare our entire population for the full range of implications associated with our water availability and use.” That’s one reason Finch feels strongly that higher education leaders have a voice in the conversation to provide critical expertise and to help stakeholders and policy makers identify priorities for water conservation and water use, and to provide examples on their own campuses that exhibit resource constraint.
For the Love of Lakes, Rivers, and Streams
Water may pose the next big sustainability challenge, not only where supply and demand are increasingly at odds, but also where water is abundant, since concerns about water purity and safe infrastructure are boundless.
Preston Jacobsen didn’t need his background in hydrology to understand this basic principle: that water will always follow the path of least resistance. Yet, that perspective is helpful to bear in mind when embarking on projects to mitigate the negative impacts of stormwater runoff. “Our campus was built in the 1960s at a time when watershed management wasn’t a top concern,” says Jacobsen, sustainability analyst for Haywood Community College, Clyde, North Carolina. Prior to projects implemented as part of Haywood’s stormwater management plan, all the drainage from the campus essentially had a straight shot down to the streams surrounding the college, explains Jacobsen. The impacts over time were noticeable, including significant bank erosion and high turbidity choking out native species.
Haywood students in the college’s low-impact development program were instrumental in designing the stormwater management plan for the campus, which included recommendations for incorporating a series of rain gardens and increasing native vegetation across the campus and along streambeds. “Students have driven the entire process, from plan design, to rain garden construction, to plant selection, to interpretive signage developed to educate the campus community and visitors,” says Jacobsen. Water sampling since the plan was implemented indicates a measurable decrease in stream sedimentation and a stabilizing of bank erosion.
Building construction and operation have presented other water sustainability learning opportunities for Haywood students, notes Jacobsen. Earlier years brought a push for lower-hanging fruit, such as sink aerators and occupancy sensors on spigots. With the opening of Haywood’s new creative arts building this past March, the college is taking water reclamation to a new level. The LEED Platinum facility is designed to recapture 80 percent of the water consumed, to make it available as greywater for irrigation and for reuse in the building’s heating and cooling systems.
The building also incorporates a 25,000-gallon storage tank to collect rainwater from most of the 40,000- square-foot building. This water is dyed blue and is circulated to the building’s lavatories. A blue flush indicates captured rainwater. On occasion when the water is clear, building occupants know they are tapping into domestic water supplies, explains Jacobsen. “This makes everyone a bit more aware of our water sourcing and cycling.”
Those impressive conservation efforts aside, concerns about water scarcity have never registered high on the radar of most living in western North Carolina, notes Jacobsen. “We get approximately 58 inches of rainfall per year here on campus, and some areas within 15 miles might receive more than 90 inches annually.” What does tend to motivate citizens to action is the love of the water that surrounds them in countless streams and rivers and lakes, says Jacobsen.
“There is a strong connection to our water heritage, and we want to protect what we have,” he says. That includes preserving what those water resources represent in the way of prime trout fishing, rafting, and general aesthetics that are enjoyed not only by a thriving tourism industry, but by the locals who live there and who want to see their children experience those same pleasures.
While there is every reason to believe that the sun will come up tomorrow, less certain for a growing number of communities in this country and for regions around the world is that the well won’t eventually run dry. Water may pose the next big sustainability challenge, not only where supply and demand are increasingly at odds, but also where water is abundant, since concerns about water purity and safe infrastructure are boundless.
As colleges and universities across the United States adopt conservation and efficiency measures, apply green infrastructure approaches on their campus grounds, and conduct research and engage students in discovery of innovative solutions to water problems, leaders must also embark on a larger watershed role. By working with local and regional government officials, nonprofit groups, and industry partners, and through sharing the expertise of faculty and the enthusiasm of students, higher education can play an instrumental role in addressing long-term water challenges not only for their own communities but for others downstream.
KARLA HIGNITE, Middletown, Rhode Island, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.