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The Power of We – Conserving Water Resources at the University of Connecticut
Public awareness of the increasing scarcity of water on a global scale has been growing over the last few decades. The main concerns are water quantity and quality; millions of people around the world have infrequent or no access to a source of clean water. This problem is exacerbated by a growing population with ever increasing demands for natural resources. In contrast, here in the USA it is hard to imagine anything but a tap flowing with cool, crisp, potable water. Too often we take water for granted. Through technological advances in the drinking water industry we are seemingly able to meet the majority of demand for water in our own country. At least, we don’t often hear about when our water infrastructure fails.
Connecticut is generally considered a water-rich state; we have adequate supplies of groundwater and high quality surface water reservoirs. However, despite this perceived abundance of water resources certain sites have been known to overstress their water sources. At the University of Connecticut there is an undergraduate population of around 17 thousand alone. If faculty, staff, and graduate students are factored in there is a daily demand for water to support in excess of 25 thousand people. It should be noted that not all of these will have needs for UConn water during peak demand hours; many live at home and will cook and bathe using separate water sources. Even so, UConn has experienced its share of water supply issues.
UConn receives high quality groundwater from two well fields adjacent to the Fenton and Willimantic rivers. The University must remain vigilant in monitoring the withdrawal rate and water levels of these rivers through its department of Facilities Operations and a partnership with the US Geological Survey. In 2005, a stretch of the Fenton River ran dry due to low precipitation and water pumping from UConn’s Fenton well field. This was a significant ecological hardship for the area and resulted in a redoubling of UConn’s water monitoring and conservation efforts.
UConn’s water supply issues did not stop there; in the spring and summer of 2012 low snow melt and precipitation associated with a nationwide drought stressed its groundwater sources yet again. The university issued a water advisory, mandating conservation efforts, including a limit on lawn watering, car washing, and ornamental fountains. Voluntary measures were suggested in conjunction.
In September, with the return of the student body, water conservation took on new urgency. The mandatory conservation measures had been lifted; however the water advisory remained in effect. Inconsistent precipitation and increased water demand led to an uncertain forecast for our water supply. Upon arrival back to school, one of my first tasks as a student intern in UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy was to implement a water conservation outreach campaign that would target the student population.
I, along with a fellow intern, outlined a schedule of steps that could be taken to promote the importance of saving water to students. Our efforts focused on advertising the facts and importance surrounding saving water and how water supply may affect life at UConn and the surrounding ecological and human communities. Through September and October we created materials to achieve this goal; the message was advertised in the student theater, student union, recreational facility, laundry rooms, and via social media.
Our message focused on what students could do to reduce their water usage. We were able to couple our program with existing programs like the OEP’s “Stop the Drop” campaign, which focuses on promoting students’ role in reporting wasteful infrastructure damages for repair. Our new materials detailed some of the wasteful habits many college students fall into, for instance in dormitory laundry rooms we advised students to restrict usage of washing machines to full loads of clothes. By combining a recognizable slogan and symbol into our work while adding new elements to the theme we hoped to maximize the effectiveness of our message.
Our efforts were rewarded when water usage for September showed that UConn used 7% less water than a year earlier. One of the greatest successes and largest contributors to these results was progress in a continued leak detection and repair program focused on UConn’s water distribution system. Retro-commissioning projects have resulted in improved system efficiencies and controls, and the combination of outreach on the parts of our office, Facilities Operations, and a variety of campus and university stakeholders managed to reduce the water demand beyond our expectations.
With infrastructure improvements underway, the outreach component of this issue must persist. In fact, the water conservation program should ideally be perpetual. With growing populations this conservation mindset must continue to spread and flourish if we are to maintain our quality of life and preserve our natural environment. Hopefully, through continued efforts we can help change our culture into one that puts a high value on our natural resources. We have a semester-long plan to continue our water conservation program and have begun to work with student organizations, like EcoHusky, to address this issue from multiple sides.
The events at the University of Connecticut over the last few years have demonstrated how a community can change its practices in order to responsibility utilize its available water supply. Throughout this process UConn has looked to other institution for guidance in its water supply plan and we hope that other groups will be able to learn from our experiences. Although UConn is a small speck on the global water budget, it may prove that a widespread change in practice and thought process on this micro-scale may prove to be effective in conserving the Earth’s precious water supply.