Public Affairs, The California State University

Campuses “Living Labs” for Sustainable Water Solutions

by Elizabeth Chapin

The CSU’s 23 campuses interact with 77 different California water districts. Add rising water prices and aging infrastructure into the mix, and it creates a challenging recipe for campuses as they strive to keep facilities both up-to-date and sustainable.

But these challenges also provide opportunities for practical research and hands-on student learning.

For future engineers, water resource professionals, and urban planners, the campus is a “living lab,” said CSU Plant, Energy & Utilities Chief Len Pettis during a panel presentation to discuss campus efforts in water sustainability at the CSU’s Water Resources and Policy Initiatives (WRPI) meeting in Long Beach June 20.

Pettis explained that the integration of CSU facilities and student research ties in perfectly with the CSU’s sustainability goals.

“The campus is the perfect place for this type of hands-on learning. It’s essentially a small city, and has all the same opportunities and challenges,” Pettis said. “Students will go into the workforce with experience solving real world problems.”

Although a recently-launched grant program provides more incentive for this type of applied learning, WRPI panel presentations proved that CSU faculty, students and staff are already actively tackling complex water problems on their campuses and in the surrounding communities.

CSU East Bay professor Michael Lee presents at the WRPI ConferenceWith the aim to reduce campus water consumption, CSU East Bay professor Michael Lee’s water resource management students recently completed a survey and analysis on campus restroom faucets. The students were able to analyze how much would be saved if they were retrofitted with aerators.

Lee says his group is now preparing to report their findings to campus facilities, who can then use it to make an informed decision about upgrades and retrofitting the faucets.

“The project is preparing our students for a variety of water-related careers, Lee said. “And ultimately, they will help CSUEB save money and become more sustainable. It’s a win-win.”

Humboldt State Environmental Resources Engineering Professor and Department Chair Eileen Cashman outlined a number of campus projects, which she says align with HSU’s student pledge to consider social and environmental consequences of all actions.

Cashman says HSU students recently pledged to “Take Back the Tap,” voting to fund the installation of water bottle hydration systems across campus in order to increase consumption of local water and decrease the use of plastic water bottles. Cashman added that HSU is now the first public university in California and the third in the nation to no longer sell bottled water.

Thanks to a pro-bono grant submittal from HSU engineering alums, the university, the city of Arcata and Arcata High School received the funding to retrofit a shared parking lot, which will include natural landscape areas to increase rainwater infiltration.

“Although Humboldt may have different water issues than San Bernardino, we still have them—and ours are primarily related to stormwater management,” Cashman said. “It’s important that this rainwater gets infiltrated back into our watershed instead of the sensitive ocean ecosystem in Humboldt Bay.”