Dorothy Leland: UC Merced aims high with water

March 20, 2014 

Water is being discussed everywhere as California endures one of the worst documented droughts in decades. Now more than ever, it is critical to consider the full scope of water’s significance – economic, geologic, political, socioeconomic and more – and the urgent need to make its conservation and management a top priority in our thirsty state.

At UC Merced, we take water seriously. From conserving water on campus through state-of-the-art technology; to researching water quality and quantity, its effects on the environment, and resource management, we’re proud to serve as a living laboratory for the San Joaquin Valley and its residents.

As educators, we must do everything we can to change daily habits related to water usage.

Resource conservation is part of our fabric. So it should come as no surprise that we welcomed University of California President Janet Napolitano’s call to cut water consumption by 20 percent by 2020. In fact, we have already exceeded that expectation – this year.

Napolitano announced the new initiative to cut per-capita water use just after the first of this year, saying that as California experiences the driest winter on record, the UC must do its part to preserve the state’s most precious natural resource.

UC Merced began slashing water usage long before even the specter of drought began to loom. As of the 2012-13 school year, UC Merced had reduced its per-capita water use by 43 percent since 2007.

UC Merced’s design – from inception – has incorporated goals for both water and electricity usage that are 40 percent below baseline levels at other UC campuses. The campus infrastructure is designed to conserve water, from its native-plant landscaping and drought-resistant, permeable pavement to its storm-water retention.

The university’s drinking, sewer and irrigation water are all carefully audited, and each building is individually metered so officials can see real-time usage. That metering system is also used each year for a residence-hall competition to see which building can cut the most water use. That competition was started by a student, and although he has since graduated, the effort continues.

Beyond best-practice conservation measures implemented throughout campus, our researchers are examining how changes in water amounts and availability are affecting a variety of environments from the coast to the Sierra Nevada peaks – above and under the ground.

Their research, both in the field and the lab, will help us better understand what to expect in the future and suggest solutions that could be undertaken now.

For example, reduced snowpack and lower precipitation throughout the state mean earlier soil drying and less water for irrigation and other basic needs. Researchers are working to discover the effects those factors will have not just at higher elevations, but all the way downstream to the Valley floor and its fragile agricultural ecosystem.

In addition, paleoecologist and professor Jessica Blois is scouring the Sierra Nevada fossil record to see what previous droughts can tell us about similar events today and in the future, and how they might affect plants and animals, including humans. Her work suggests our region’s landscape and beyond could look much different in coming decades as plants and animals migrate to climates that better suit them.

This kind of research adds to the database that allows our researchers to model the large-scale and local impacts of multiyear droughts.

California’s drought is a critical problem that will have immediate effects this year – including on the availability and prices of Valley produce – as well as a lasting legacy.

That’s why we are stepping up our efforts to understand the impact of drought on our state’s vitality while redoubling our own commitment to design and operate our facilities in a sustainable manner.

Every wasted drop of water is a drop we no longer can afford to lose.

Leland is chancellor of UC Merced.

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