Looking to schools to do their part on the drought

Looking to schools to do their part on the drought

(Calif.)  Albany High School has installed waterless toilets. Kindergartners at Tierra Linda Elementary have a letter-writing campaign urging water conservation. And Dorsey High School in Los Angeles has built a retention system capable of handling 16,500 cubic feet of storm water.

As Californians face down a fourth year of drought, schools are increasingly becoming a focal point of not only disseminating best practices to the rest of the community but also finding creative and effective ways to save water themselves.

Just this week, California Department of Education issued new guidance on what facility managers can do to save water, while state schools chief Tom Torlakson has sponsored a Twitter page, #waterwiseschools, where students, teachers and others can post what they are doing to help get through the drought.

“The superintendent and the department have always emphasized the role schools play as a part of the community,” said Giorgos Kazanis, CDE spokesman. “As schools use best practices on campus and teachers talk about conservation in the classroom – these are things that are going to come back to the parents and the community to help spread the word.”

The governor’s executive order issued in April implementing restrictions aims at an overall 25 percent reduction in potable urban water use and covers all commercial, industrial and institutional entities – including local educational agencies.

Unlike an executive at a private company or even a homeowner, school administrators are required to balance student safety with conservation mandates, which can complicate water-saving programs at schools.

Diane Waters, CDE architect and energy liaison, said administrators can’t simply, for instance, stop watering playing fields.

“Playfields at schools are educational space,” she said. “Facility managers have a duty to maintain them in a manner that is safe for the students. So, they may not be able to stop watering completely – but perhaps they can reduce watering.”

Waters, who is one of the authors of the CDE’s newly released drought response guide, said one of the first things facility managers should do is document their use so they have something to measure against and to give some sense of what measures are working.

Although costly, she said, metering outlets to distinguish outside use from indoor use might be worthwhile in the long run to have a firm grasp of where water is being used.

Another key tip for schools is to contact their local water purveyor because many have programs to help pay for conservation projects and water audits, as well as more advice for lowering water use.

Among the other ideas from the CDE:

  • Aerate soil in turf fields.
  • Use native or drought tolerant planting whenever possible, especially in ornamental areas.
  • Install mulch around trees, shrubs, and bedding plants, three to four inches deep (be aware of the potential for pests in mulch when placing near buildings).
  • Water during the early parts of the day or after sunset; avoid watering when it is windy.
  • Provide irrigation for trees to maintain health.
  • Water plants for a longer time period, less frequently. The plants develop deeper roots and can manage drought better.
  • Consider field-use adjustments and consolidations to minimize irrigation needs.
  • Allow the grass to grow longer, especially in the summer (mow less often, or set the mower blades higher, e.g. three inches).
  • Plant grass species that require less water (e.g. switch from blue/rye to hybrid bermuda).
  • Adjust fertilizers during warmer months to optimize plant health.
  • Create a public Website and hotline to allow the community to report broken sprinklers and adjust staffing and communications so reported leaks are addressed within a certain time frame (e.g. within 24 hours).
  • Install a pool cover on outdoor school swimming pools. Uncovered pools can lose 1,000 gallons per month or more to evaporation.