Peter Bowler
Peter Bowler

UCI’s water scarcity research is globally recognized, and with California in its fourth year of drought, the campus is practicing what it preaches with even greater zeal.

With more than 35,000 people in classes, offices and laboratories daily, UCI is a small but growing city. Its faucets, toilets and water fountains all get heavy traffic. Thousands of students live in dorms and apartments, and hundreds of faculty and their families reside in University Hills – showering, cooking, doing laundry, washing dishes, swimming and watering plants.

Despite all that activity, the campus has slashed its water use by 33 percent in the past 10 years – outstripping a University of California mandate to reduce consumption by 20 percent by 2020. The campus is aiming to make more large cuts in water demand.

“Our water conservation initiatives have significantly reduced per capita water use on campus already over the past decade,” says Richard Demerjian, director of environmental planning and sustainability. “Using the recently adopted UCI Water Action Plan as a road map, we are pursuing a range of projects to achieve even more aggressive water reduction while we increase population, programs and building space.”

Strategies include replacing toilets with low-flush models, starting in popular first-floor restrooms and moving up; retrofitting laboratory equipment; improving leak response; utilizing recycled water in new buildings; capturing and reusing storm water; replacing thirsty turf with drought-tolerant landscaping; and installing miserly irrigation systems. Students compete to see who can take the shortest showers – and the durations are clocked online in real time via small electronic devices dubbed “barnacles” that transmit data from water meters via a cellular network to a cloud-based software program.

Officials are studying every remaining source, considering, for instance, whether they could collect condensation from air conditioning systems.

“It’s more than drips,” explains Demerjian, who’s also chair of UCI’s Water Resources Working Group. “There are currently pipes that collect a substantial amount of condensate from building HVAC systems. We would divert this water from the sewer to holding tanks and use it in fountains or landscaping.”

The campus water action plan was developed by representatives from all corners of the campus, including Environmental Planning & Sustainability, Facilities Management, Student Housing, Campus Recreation, the medical center, and Environmental Health & Safety.

Assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering Amir AghaKouchak, who studies drought regionally and globally, has been briefed by campus officials on the reductions and goals. He says they’re excellent, noting that they fulfill Gov. Jerry Brown’s call to campuses and other major facilities to cut up to 25 percent more.

“Absolutely, given that we are in the fourth year of a drought, this is necessary,” says AghaKouchak. “I think nobody should be excluded. Colleges are a part of society, and there are no exceptions.”

More than 95 percent of landscaping now employs recycled sewage water, and the rest – including the UCI Arboretum – will soon be converted.

At the arboretum, which contains rare and native plant species, all turf has been ripped out. Despite the lack of rain, water use there is at a four-year low. Pointing to a dusty brown patch at the entrance to the North Campus site, director Peter Bowler says, “We’re doing our very best to keep water usage at an absolute minimum. This about a month ago was green turf. The water is turned off. We’re also removing large, water-loving trees.”

There is a cost to “going brown.” He moves through the open space, noting cracked, dry marsh beds that once teemed with native cattails and waterfowl.

“Right now it is a parched landscape – usually we would have water levels over the top of those stakes out there,” he says, eyeing the muddy remnants of a wetland that would normally be replenished with diversions from a nearby creek that is now bone dry “Things are very stressed. We’re trying to cope with these challenges in creative ways.”

A faculty biologist, Bowler says there is opportunity in the prolonged dry spell.

“The whole campus is going xeriscape. We’re deep into getting away from turf and using plants that preferably are native but at least use little water,” he says. “I can easily see how there can be an upside to this.”