UC Berkeley plans to reduce water usage by 65 million gallons by 2020

Toilets Illustration Infographic
Anna Vignet/Senior Staff

Since dozens of toilets and urinals in University Hall were converted a few months ago to use less water, the hall has seen a significant drop in its water consumption — just a small part of the campus’s overall water conservation goal.

There, UC Berkeley has begun work in its quest to significantly taper its campuswide water use. The campus is aiming to cut its water usage by over 65 million gallons by 2020.

Last spring, the campus spent about $14,500 to retrofit 41 toilets and 16 urinals in the hall to low-flow — meaning they now use about two fewer gallons of water with each flush.

The work was completed in May with funds from the campus Vice Chancellors’ Administrative Council that were granted to the Office of Sustainability for sustainability projects, according to Christine Shaff, communications manager for the campus Facilities Services department.

Following the changes, there was a 20 percent average reduction in the hall’s June and July water consumption as compared to the same months in 2010, according to Shaff.

The project is part of the campus’s plan to bring its water usage to 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2020 — a goal set by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in April.

The goal applies only to potable water — water that is safe for humans to drink — and amounts to a reduction of about 65 million gallons.

Expanding the toilet retrofits to other buildings, such as Dwinelle Hall, where a project is currently under way, could go a long way toward obtaining Birgeneau’s objective.

“That’s one of the quickest and easiest steps,” said Ellen Hanak, a senior policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California with expertise in water policy. “It’s a good cost-effective measure, usually, because especially in facilities that have a lot of people using the restrooms, you’re saving a lot of gallons every day, and it also doesn’t rely on behavioral changes.”

According to a December 2010 report issued by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability — a group of students, faculty and staff charged with advising the chancellor on various environmental issues — retrofitting 75 percent of the campus’s toilets to low-flow fixtures would save about 25.9 million gallons of water annually, while doing the same for urinals would save about 5.6 million gallons annually.

The conserved water would translate into dollar savings as well. According to the report, net annual savings for the toilet and urinal conversions would be $115,482 and $25,109, respectively.

Other projects suggested by that report include enhanced leak reduction efforts and general education about water conservation on campus. If the campus implemented all of the report’s recommendations, the upfront costs would be about $1.5 million but would save approximately $225,000 annually.

Though the campus is actively working to achieve a set conservation target, its water consumption has already been on a steady decline over the last two decades.

According to the 2011 Campus Sustainability Report, water use on campus has dropped 15.5 percent since 1990.

Scaling down water use is important for a host of reasons, including the energy associated with moving water around as well as the price of doing so, said Lisa McNeilly, the campus director of sustainability.

During times of drought, moreover, the price of water can skyrocket as the supply is concurrently restricted by the water provider.

“It gets to the heart of what sustainability is — that we should be paying attention to how much water there really is available to us in our watershed and work to not exceed that,” McNeilly said. “Just like with electricity, the cheapest gallon of water is the one that you don’t use.”

Though the movement toward lower water consumption will likely become systemwide policy, progress on establishing a reduction target for each campus is flowing at a slower pace.

The UC Sustainability Steering Committee — composed of administrators from across the 10-campus system and the UC Office of the President, as well as sustainability experts — has decided to collect more data over the next year before possibly implementing a systemwide policy, according to Matthew St. Clair, the sustainability manager for UCOP.

According to St. Clair, UC Berkeley is the first campus to set a water reduction goal for sustainability purposes.

“Berkeley was actually a role model for this systemwide development of a water policy,” he said.

J.D. Morris is the lead environment reporter.