Admin, students work to cut water use

In light of a four-year drought and mandatory water use restrictions imposed earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown, USC administration and student groups are working closely together to cut campus water use.

But at a university with more than 30 fountains and lush greenscapes, cementing behavioral changes in students, faculty and staff has proven to be the campus’ biggest roadblock.

“Water conservation is something we’re struggling with immensely from a community point of view,” said Ahlia Bethea, director of the Environmental Student Assembly.

The university’s biggest water hogs are residential halls, campus buildings and laboratories, according to the Office of Sustainability. ESA is working with the sustainability office and Student Affairs to launch a campaign this semester targeting Trojan water waste.

The effort hopes to curb abuses such as excessive showers and sinks left on.

“I’m a residential advisor and people are taking 10 minute showers [and] leaving their water running,” Bethea said. “If they were more aware of the consequences, they’d be less inclined to leave that tap on.”

Students and other campus visitors aren’t the only ones being told to cut back — USC administration will soon be getting its own set of instructions from the campus’ Water Conservation Task Force. Formed last June to advise senior administration on water usage and reduction targets, the group will be providing recommendations to individual university departments in the coming weeks.

Shawn Anthony Rhoads, a senior and former director of the ESA serves as an undergraduate representative on the task force. Though a large focus of the group is curbing campus buildings’ water usage, he said the university should make a concerted move to switch out its green spaces for more drought-tolerant options.

“There’s no reason why USC needs grass,” Rhoads said. “We don’t need greenscape. Our university could look just as beautiful with native plants.”

USC administration has shared Rhoads’s concern with landscape converting initiatives to an extent.

“[Facilities Management Services] has been converting a lot of spaces into drought—resistant areas,” said Halli Bovia, the director of the Office of Sustainability. “Shrubs in place of turf, some native but mostly drought tolerant.”

The campus’ fight against water waste first began a few years ago, and since then the University has reduced its usage by 14 percent per square foot.

USC efforts have only risen since then, due in no small part to state and city mandatory reductions. It’s a shift in focus lauded by campus environmental activists as a change that is long overdue.

“The problem is that water is really cheap, so it hasn’t been the focus of colleges until fairly recently,” Bovia said.

In addition to working with the ESA, Bovia’s team just finished surveying roughly 3,500 water fixtures on campus to identify which ones could be upgraded and what savings could be made.

It is little actions like these that prove to be more effective, Bovia said, than more symbolic gestures, such as draining the fountains. USC’s nearly three dozen fountains get the most audible flack from students and visitors who see them as a symbol of water waste, but those complaints may be unwarranted. The fountains constitute only 2 percent of USC’s water usage and use recirculated water.

“There’s an aesthetic benefit to the fountains, and even though they use 4.4 million gallons roughly annually, it’s only 2 percent,” Bovia said.  “Students don’t understand that water is recirculated, they just think it’s a hose running.”

Beyond USC’s gates, California is listening to the call to cut back. Announced last Thursday, the Golden State had a 31 percent statewide reduction—exceeding Brown’s 25 percent mandate.

Now, university administration hopes USC will continue that trend.

“We’re on the right track,” Bethea said. “But we can obviously do more.”