UCSB Leads the Way in Water Conservation

California has long been a leader in the sustainability movement; its public universities are no exception. The university system has taken some big steps to go green in the last several years, one of which was its commitment to reduce water use by 20% by 2020.

UC-Santa Barbara reached that target in 2011—nine years early. But it’s not done yet. UCSB plans to cut water use by another 20% by 2028 through its Water Action Plan, one of the most comprehensive water management plans ever created by a university. So far, the results have been remarkable.

“UCSB’s Water Action Plan is a great step forward for conserving perhaps our most definitive resource in Southern California—water. This far-sighted document details current usage and possible modes of usage reduction. It also provides estimates of economic costs and benefits; but in fact, these are almost inconsequential, as the question in water conservation is not ‘if,’ nor even ‘when,’ but rather ‘now.’ This plan will help UCSB and, by example, other academic institutions, move on this important resource now.”

The Water Action Plan was first proposed back in 2012 by a group of six graduate students at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The first step was to conduct a massive water audit at the university. Students researched UCSB’s wastewater collection facility, its central pumping station, and nearly every bathroom on campus to measure water flow, toilet flush volumes, and faucet fixtures.

Next, the group of students offered up a series of recommendations to improve efficiency. They suggested restroom retrofits to improve the efficiency of toilets, faucets, and aerators—a step that can pay for itself in water savings in just one year. Their plan also calls for improvements to the university’s cooling towers and expanded use of weather-based irrigation. Additionally, the students recommended the creation of a new staff position to oversee water management, and the inclusion of water conservation in the academic curriculum.

“A lot of universities have climate action plans that, if you look historically over the last ten years, have focused mostly on energy, rising energy prices, and climate change. But now we’re seeing this shift into water,” said one of the students. “We’re coming into an era of more water awareness—especially in California—and I think you’ll see more universities move from climate to water.”

Thanks to the Water Action Plan, UCSB is on track to meet its goal of reducing water use by 20% by 2028. The university is setting the trend for water conservation on campus. Hopefully other universities will follow their lead.