California, Stanford Tackle Water

The piece of legislation was monumental, the negotiations fierce and the interest groups fully armed. It was part of an explosive decades-long battle not over universal healthcare (an issue that looks quite tame by comparison) but rather the lifeblood of California—water.

On November 4th, the legislature approved a series of five bills that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a bipartisan group of legislators hope will usher in a new era for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The bills create a new Delta Stewardship Council that unifies dozens of agencies with jurisdiction in the region and also establishes a monitoring system for groundwater levels. For Stanford University, the most significant element of the legislation may be a requirement for urban areas to reduce water consumption by 20%.

It is unclear how Stanford’s aggressive water conservation initiatives of the last few years will be taken into account. The university is required to follow a strict outline of conservation targets as part of the General Use Permit (GUP), an agreement between Santa Clara County and the university.
Indeed, those conservation targets have encouraged the university to lower campus water usage significantly. The GUP required Stanford to stay below 3.033 million gallons of water use per day, and since the agreement was signed in late 2000, the university has lowered its water usage from 2.7 to 2.3 million gallons per day on average.

As could be expected, there is a low-hanging fruit principle at work here. According to its sustainability website, Stanford has already conducted 50 retrofits of university structures to improve water usage. One of the projects mentioned was a replacement to university dining tray dryers – with savings of 142 gallons per hour.

With few inexpensive options available, the university is embarking on a more audacious plan to lower its water and energy usage. Last month, the university announced plans to overhaul its power generation facilities to the tune of $250 million. Through new water recycling systems and upgrades to cooling and heating systems, the plan’s goal is to cut water usage by another 18%.

That may match the demands of the legislature (the timeline is unclear), preventing another round of new shower heads and dining tray rationing. But it also misses an important element of California’s overall water crisis – agricultural water usage.

California’s urban areas use roughly 11% of the state’s water, with the majority used for farming in the Central Valley and elsewhere. Noticeably, the bills passed by the legislature only proscribe water reductions for urban areas, and not for agricultural regions.

That may make the bill palatable for enough legislators to vote aye, but it is questionable how shaving another fifth off urban water use will solve California’s continuous water crisis. No matter the politics, though, Stanford will most certainly be waiting hand in wallet to meet the state’s demands. With power plant upgrades, students may just avoid taking drip showers.

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