Chancellor Dirks calls on UC Berkeley community to conserve water

Emily Robinson/Staff

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The clouds in the sky and the rain may seem promising, but the message from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks is clear: California is in the midst of a drought emergency, and the campus community must do its part to cut back water consumption.

In an email addressed to the campus community Wednesday, Dirks called on students, staff and faculty alike to change their daily habits and lessen the impact of the drought. His call to action follows Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency last month, as the state is currently facing what may be its worst drought in 500 years.

“At least half of the water consumed on campus and in our homes is domestic (toilets, showers, etc.),” Dirks said in the email. “Changes in our daily routine are an essential part of a response to a drought emergency.”

Still, UC Berkeley has been working to conserve water since 2011, when then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau set the goal of reducing the campus’s potable water use to 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The campus is already more than halfway to reaching the goal, according to campus director of sustainability Lisa McNeilly.

“This campus has reduced water use by 17 percent since 1990,” McNeilly said. “And that’s a period where we’ve added a lot more people and a lot more buildings. What we’re doing now is intensifying our efforts.”

The reduction in water usage is due in part to efficient fixtures installed in new and renovated buildings and residence halls, McNeilly said. The residence halls have seen water usage drop more than 35 percent in the last 10 years when adjusted for resident numbers, according to the 2013 campus sustainability report.

The toilets in University Hall, for example, have been retrofitted with special kits that have reduced their water usage by 17 percent, McNeilly said. Still, she said that because water is relatively inexpensive, it is difficult to cut costs during water conservation efforts.

“When we do energy projects, it’s fairly easy to find projects where we can save a significant amount of money,” McNeilly said. “That’s harder to do with water.”

Students are helping to pay for some water conservation projects through the Green Initiative Fund, which is supported by a mandatory fee paid by students ever since it was approved through an ASUC referendum in 2007. The fee, which is currently set at $6 per student per semester, awards about $300,000 a year in grants and loans to finance projects by students, staff and faculty to support environmental sustainability.

TGIF has funded more than a dozen water conservation and tap water projects since its inception, including a nearly $30,000 effort during the spring 2013 semester to conserve water in the Greek community. That effort included launching an awareness campaign, installing fixtures in Greek houses that use less water and holding a competition among the houses.

The ASUC is also working to promote water conservation. The senate passed a bill Wednesday instructing several ASUC executives to work with various student groups to educate and brainstorm solutions to reduce water usage.

“Just changing our water usage on campus is one thing,” said CalSERVE Senator Caitlin Quinn, one of the bill’s authors. “But helping the students be more aware so they can bring the knowledge back home and to their high school friends could make a bigger impact.”

Mitchell Handler covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mitchellhandler.