Conserving Water at GW

Earth Day
April 25, 2011

GW’s water sustainability plan addresses water consumption and quality over the next 10 years.

By Jennifer Eder

Last week on Earth Day, the George Washington University revealed its water footprint and unveiled a comprehensive plan aimed to reduce water consumption and bottled water use as well as minimize pollutants in waste water on its three campuses.

During the Earth Day fair held on Kogan Plaza April 22, GW President Steven Knapp announced eight aggressive goals, including plans to reduce the university’s water consumption by 25 percent in 10 years and bottled water direct expenditures by 50 percent over the next five years.

“Our focus on the conservation and reclamation of water at George Washington is an important expression of our commitment to become a model of urban sustainability,” said Dr. Knapp. “Our GWater sustainability plan is one of the most comprehensive frameworks to address water consumption and water quality at any urban university.”

Each year, GW consumes about 287 million gallons of water. About 40 percent comes from domestic activities such as showers, toilets and washing machines in GW’s residence halls. GW’s Office of Sustainability believes that through activities such as installing low-flow fixtures whenever new plumbing is needed, repairing leaks quickly and continuing the annual Eco-Challenge between residence halls and faculty and staff buildings to encourage water conservation, GW will be able to reduce its potable water, or water fit for human consumption, by a quarter over the next decade.

GW is capturing rainwater that falls onto its campuses in devices like rain barrels and cisterns. By doing this, the university will help to eliminate urban run-off, which occurs when rain is not collected or absorbed and eventually flows into the storm sewer system, carrying with it pollutants. Another way to reduce run-off is to increase the amount of permeable spaces, which naturally absorb water unlike impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, sidewalks and rooftops.

Today, about 15 percent of the Foggy Bottom campus contains permeable spaces, including the green roof of the Elliott School of International Affairs and the Square 80 Plaza. The Elliott School’s roof helps absorb and capture storm water that would otherwise run into the storm system, and Square 80 contains three cisterns for water collection. GW plans to increase permeable space on all of its campuses by 10 percent over the next 10 years.

By 2021, GW also plans to reuse all of its retained rainwater in cooling towers and irrigation, which will help to reduce the university’s total water consumption.

“GW deserves recognition for its leadership in developing an innovative water sustainability plan,” said Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute.

Last week, GW was included in The Princeton Review’s Guide to 311 Green Colleges: 2011 Edition, which recognizes colleges that have demonstrated a notable commitment to sustainability. GW was specifically featured for integrating sustainability into the academic curriculum. The university offers more than 100 courses and 14 academic programs that address sustainability, including a new graduate program in sustainable urban planning in the College of Professional Studies.

By 2030, global demand for water is projected to exceed supply by 40 percent, according to a McKinsey & Company report. Locally, the Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Reliability study predicts that by 2040 the current water supply system may have difficulty meeting the region’s demands during periods of drought without water restrictions or without developing additional supply resources. Additionally, a U.S. Geological Survey reports that pollution in the Potomac Watershed continues to be an issue due to bacteria, chemicals and metals found in the water because of runoff.

It takes an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. each year, and the ones that aren’t recycled and end up in landfills and will never biodegrade. This is one of the reasons why GW plans to reduce the university’s procurement direct expenditure on bottled water by 50 percent within five years. Bottle filling stations will be added to existing water fountains on campus to encourage GW students, faculty and staff to use a reusable water bottle. Water filtration systems will also be incorporated in new construction and major renovations.

GW also wants to reduce the amount of contaminants going into the campus waste water system by hosting bi-annual litter pick-up days, encouraging students to purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products and educating the GW community on responsible pharmaceutical disposal so that prescription drugs don’t enter GW’s waste water.

Lastly, GW plans to partner with external groups, including DC Water, to enhance dialogue on urban water issues and monitor local trends and new regulations related to water conservation. The university will also review and update its water footprint and sustainability goals as new technologies, regulations or partnerships emerge.

GW has already made strides toward improving its water sustainability. The university has reduced its water usage by 40 million gallons over the last four years through infrastructure improvements and its annual Eco-Challenges.

GW faculty are also helping GW reduce its water footprint. Royce Francis, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is partnering with GW’s sustainability office to develop an integrated water use impact assessment for the District’s infrastructure, using GW as a pilot site. Melissa Keeley, an assistant professor of geography, public policy and public administration, has developed a tool that integrates sustainable practices into the new zoning codes for the District, which will help to improve urban water run-off issues.

“GW is where it’s at in terms of sustainability and setting a model for the future. The energy here and the commitment just tell me that what we do here really speaks to national and international priorities,” said Melissa Perry, the new chair of GW’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the School of Public Health and Health Services, who spoke at the Earth Day fair. “I’ve been at a number of academic institutions before coming to GW, and nowhere have I seen such a commitment to service, such a commitment to change and proactive awareness about what we do now influencing future generations.”

Last year, GW unveiled its climate action plan, which calls for a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025 and pledges to reach carbon neutrality by 2040. Also announced was a $2 million revolving fund for sustainability – the Green Campus Fund – which has already funded $1 million worth of energy efficiency projects on its campuses. Solar thermal water heaters were installed in Building JJ earlier this year, and two more systems are planned for Ivory Tower and 1959 E Street later this year.

During this year’s Earth Day fair, students, faculty and staff visited various vendors who were showcasing eco-friendly products. Staples offered eco-conscious office supplies while GW’s Division of Information Technology demonstrated its “paperless office” software that many GW offices are already using. GW’s Food Justice Alliance, a student organization that runs the university’s community garden, offered raw and unprocessed foods that still contain all of their original nutrients.

Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW’s sustainability office, encouraged the GW community to get involved and help it reach all of its water sustainability goals by using a reusable water bottle instead of bottled water and paying attention to what is washed down the drain. Students can also participate in Green Move-Out during which students will be able to donate clothing, food, cleaning products and books to several area charities. Graduating seniors can sign the Green Grad Pledge, which asks students to be eco-conscious in their future professional life by recycling, turning off their computer and using public transportation.

“Today GW is taking a leadership step. I hope that other universities and other large institutions who reside in the Potomac Watershed will disclose their water footprints too,” said Ms. Chapple-Brown. “After all, we’re all in this together.”

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