UC Merced meets its goal to conserve water, plans more efforts

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comMarch 12, 2014 

Students who live on campus at UC Merced annually challenge each other to see which residential building can use the least water.

BEA AHBECK CASSON — Merced Sun-Star Buy Photo

UC Merced was designed from the beginning to conserve resources – and that’s paying off in a very dry year.

The newest UC campus has reduced its water use per person by 43 percent since 2007, according to UC Merced officials, far surpassing a university system goal to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020.

University of California President Janet Napolitano announced that goal for each campus Jan. 16. Gov. Jerry Brown made the official declaration on the state drought the next day.

UC Merced staff, faculty and student water use dropped from 22,564 gallons per person in 2007 to 13,290 last year. That puts the campus below the systemwide goal by more than 4,700 gallons per person.

“It does take a significant amount of effort and investment to build an efficient building,” said Zuhair Mased, the campus director of energy and sustainability. “It’s equally important to build the building and operate it in an efficient manner.”

Mased said UC Merced planners surveyed the other UC campuses with plans to design more-efficient buildings and water systems. To that end, the campus was fitted with high-efficiency and low-flow faucets, toilets and showers.

The campus has an extensive water metering system that allows it to find even the smallest of leaks, Mased said. “You don’t find major leaks on our campus, because we always take care of it,” he said.

Though the campus has met its goal, there are other ideas floating around about ways to further conserve water. One would be the recycling of gray water – the dirty water that comes from people washing their hands, showering and washing dishes. This water usually goes down the drain and leaves the campus, but could be filtered enough to be used to water landscaping.

Thought also goes into what kind of landscaping could be planted that would require smaller amounts of water. Roughly 50 percent of the university’s water is used to sprinkle the landscape, according to school leaders.

The water at UC Merced comes from an 800-foot well found on the university’s property but owned by the city of Merced.

“They’ve been doing a great job conserving water,” said Michael Wegley, the city’s director of water resources. “I think we could all learn from them.”

With roughly 6,200 students on campus, the university is the city’s “biggest customer,” Wegley said.

Students living on campus are also encouraged to do their part to conserve. An annual competition pits the residential buildings against one another to see which can keep the water meter readings the lowest.

The campus has a goal to reach 10,000 enrolled by 2020, so total water use will surely go up. However, university leaders expect to be able to keep the use per capita low compared with the other campuses in the system.

Graeme Mitchell, assistant vice chancellor for facilities management, said students who live on campus have been asked to be mindful of how long they shower, of running the faucet while brushing their teeth and of only washing clothes when there’s a full load, among other regular conservation requests.

Mitchell, who also spent 18 years at UCLA, said some of the efficiency that UC Merced sees would be difficult to imitate at the other UC campuses. However, he’s seen a significant amount of retrofitting at other campuses, such as waterless urinals, low-flow toilets and new irrigation practices.

UC Merced wants to be able to pass the “best practices” it develops beyond the campus and the UC system, Mitchell said. “Not only are we trying to do the best we can on the campus,” he said, “but we’re trying to extend it and connect to the community and our business partners to inspire their conservation as well.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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