Cal Poly killed off many of its lawns, including the one seen here in a 2015 picture, in order to conserve water. | Iliana Arroyos/Mustang News

Cal Poly has reduced its campus-wide water usage by 31 percent compared to 2013, exceeding Gov. Jerry Brown’s statewide mandate of a 25 percent cut.

Despite the rainfall the Central Coast has received this year, there has not been substantial water for Cal Poly to end its conservation practices. Therefore, the Drought Response Plan, which influences Cal Poly to make environmentally conscious decisions, is still in effect, according to Facility Services Director for Strategic Projects Scott Loosley.

“There’s a reason why this is happening: because we are in a drought of historic proportions,” Loosley said. “This is our commitment to reducing our water use, and we haven’t gotten adequate rainfall to start replanting yet.”

Despite Cal Poly’s effort to remain compliant with the governor’s mandate and adjust to the environment, there may not be overwhelming approval for the drought reduction plan.

“We’ve gotten pressure from multiple sides. When we hadn’t reduced our irrigation at all, we were getting complaints from students and faculty that we weren’t doing enough to show our commitment to reducing water use,” Loosley said. “We eliminated turf and we got complaints from people that the campus looks worse than it ever has.”

However, animal science sophomore Chelsea Dinndorf thinks the environmental impact outweighs less greenery on campus.

“I haven’t felt an impact in the reduction of grass on campus specifically with my animal sciences classes,” Dinndorf said. “The pastures are watered regularly, so as long as they are maintained for the animals, I think the reduction plan is good for Cal Poly.”

The campus may not look very attractive, but the changes are necessary for the sake of saving water, Loosley said.

“Unfortunately, one of the defining images and comments from people is that we have a beautiful campus. Now when you drive in, it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s pretty brown,’ but I think that that is an accurate reflection of our environment right now,” Loosley said. “I think to do anything differently would either show a carelessness to our water use and wouldn’t be responsible. I am hoping that people understand, that while our campus doesn’t look very good, we are making a commitment to reducing water.”

A few landscape architecture students, including junior Jonah Polkes, have received design project assignments associated with the turf reduction plan.

“It’s a tough balance because obviously people like sitting on the grass,” Polkes said. “But, from an ecological standpoint, grass is not the best option and there’s a way around it, which is what I think they are trying to do.”

Cal Poly uses approximately 309 million gallons of water per year from the Whale Rock Reservoir near Cayucos. Approximately 25 percent of total water usage can be attributed to building use, one third goes to sports fields and landscape, and the rest is used for agriculture. Total water usage has remained nearly flat since 2003, even with the addition of Poly Canyon Village (PCV) and building expansions, Loosley said.

The 2015 Drought Response Plan focuses on three different areas: building plumbing systems, landscape irrigation and agricultural operations. Facilities Process Water Use accounts for lost water through leakage or evaporation.

Building plumbing systems

Cal Poly is switching to low-flow fixtures, which will reduce the amount of water per use in addition to saving excess clean drinking water that usually goes down the drain. Low-flow faucets have a flow rate of 0.5 gallons per minute, while regular faucets have a flow rate of 2.2 gallons per minute.

Existing buildings might see changes such as:

  • Low-flow plumbing fixtures in restrooms (i.e. low-flow toilets/urinals, low-flow showerheads)
  • More efficient lab equipment
  • Cooling towers
  • Less water for swimming pools

What have they already done?

  • 954 low-flow faucets in University Housing
  • 300 low-flow shower heads added in residence halls
  • Four new cooking steamers at Campus Dining
  • High efficiency spray nozzle at meat storage walk-in cooler
  • Pool covers to Anderson Aquatic Center

With these measures, Cal Poly will save approximately 52 million gallons of water per year,according to the Drought Response Plan.

When PCV was built, water usage remained flat even with the addition of 2,800 beds due to efforts to add low-flow fixtures.

However, the completion of Student Housing South is going to add to the student population living on campus. In order to keep water usage down, the university is going to include more water efficient fixtures, project manager Annie Rendler said.

Landscape irrigation

Landscape water use will be reduced through:

  1. Turf reduction plan
  2. Improved moisture retention
  3. Updated irrigation system

Turf reduction plan
According to Loosley, Cal Poly has eliminated more than 14 acres of unnecessary turf.

“The turf reduction plan was part of a broader campus drought contingency plan that occurred on campus,” Loosley said. “One of the directives was to eliminate turf that just has an aesthetic element that was along roadways.”

Facility Services designed a map to show how the plan has affected campus. All areas that are green show grass that will not be removed, while yellow shows turf areas that will be or have been removed.

Rather than letting the lawn die on its own, it was sprayed out with herbicide for two reasons, Loosley said. Trees left on lawns still needed irrigation, and lawns often look weedy when left to dry out, since some areas die quicker than others.

“Our main goal is to preserve the tree collection on campus,” Loosley said. “If the drought were to continue, we would sacrifice other landscapes in order to maintain our trees.”

The grass-killing was not without controversy, though. Cal Poly used Roundup, a Monsanto pesticide that is legal in the United States, but illegal in countries such as France and the Netherlands because of health and environmental risks.

According to Facility Services Landscape Manager Ronald Hostick, the area that used to have turf will be repurposed to better suit the current environment. Climate-appropriate plants which need little water will be planted instead of thirsty greenery.

All turf areas that are frequently used by students will be retained, such as Dexter Lawn, O’Neill Green, turf by residential halls and the lawn on the south side of English (building 22).

Moisture retention
Before putting in drought-resistant plants, the plant beds will be treated with soil amendment, a material that can improve soil physically or chemically to make it more suitable for plant growth. After, the soil will be covered with mulch in order to retain moisture.

Irrigation system
With the advancement of their irrigation control system, Facility Services will be able to wirelessly control water distribution.

The new program will use evapotranspiration, the process of evaporating water through plant transpiration, to determine the amount of water the plant needs. Additionally, Calsense sensors will be used with irrigation controllers to monitor the environmental conditions and daily weather. According to Hostick, other universities have been able to prove a 30 percent reduction in irrigation water use with this method.

“We are making a large upgrade to our irrigation control system and tying it back to evapotranspiration,” Hostick said. “Once we’ve got it programmed, it will adjust the run time and act as a central controlled system that will turn off when it rains, and subtract that from future irrigation to the same plants.”

The new irrigation controls would use weather data to determine how much water is needed versus determining the amount of water based off of appearance, Loosley said.

“Currently our irrigation controllers are programmed by grounds workers and is based more on appearance; if things are wilting or really green,” Loosley said. “There is a tendency to kind of overwater so things look really good, rather than underwatering to the point where things look really bad.”

Agricultural operations

Since 2013, agriculture has accounted for approximately half of Cal Poly’s water usage and covered approximately 120 acres of pastures and crops.

Conservation measures for agriculture include:

  • More efficient sprinklers
  • Drip irrigation system
  • Install micro-emitters
  • Improved reservoir and well management

The Whale Rock Reservoir and campus wells are used for irrigation around Cal Poly farmland. The Whale Rock Reservoir allocates approximately 125.7 million gallons of water per year.

Since Californians started paying attention to the drought, Cal Poly has come up with a few tricks. Using water from the wells on Field 25 and 28 has reduced demand on the reservoir by approximately 33 million gallons since January 2014.

Over Summer 2014, all existing sprinklers were replaced with smaller nozzles in the crops units and pastures. The reduction in nozzles decreased water use in sprinkler irrigation by 33 percent.

Micro-emitters have been installed to irrigate all the orchard crops which allow for low pressure spraying, misting or dripping of water on the crops.

In looking to use reclaimed water, Cal Poly has also implemented green roofs and a rainwater catchment system.

All components of the Drought Response Plan will be implemented over the course of the next few years.

It will cost approximately $420,000 but will save $150,000 each year in utility expenses overall, which will balance out in 2018.

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