Thursday, January 23, 2014

Marine Conservation Class Studies Water Conservation in Dorms

Students in Professor Don Croll's Marine Conservation class don't just learn about water conservation issues by reading studies--they design and implement their own studies. This fall, the focus of one team project in the course was Santa Cruz's local watershed and the relationship between students in the dorms and the water in our community. One student working on the project, Travis Trinh, shared with us what the project was about.

The purpose of the study was to support more sustainable use of freshwater on campus. He explains: "The reason we decided to focus on this subject was because Santa Cruz has been historically a very dry county. These past few years have had a marked decrease in average annual rainfall," he said. "This year alone has been one of the driest we've had in 5 years. Since the majority of our water comes from local watersheds, our water consumption is highly dependent on rainfall." The Campus Sustainability Plan for 2013-16 states that "Water delivered to the campus from the City of Santa Cruz comes entirely from local sources that are vulnerable to drought periods... UCSC uses about 6% of the total area water demand and serves as the largest single water customer in the city's water service area" (p. 20). According to a Santa Cruz Sentinel article from the end of 2013, Santa Cruz has a new low rainfall record of only around 5 inches of rainfall for the entire year--60 percent less than the previous record from 1929. No doubt we're in a serious drought.

With very little rain, conserving water becomes even more important than most years. At UCSC, that means evaluating how to effectively reduce the amount of freshwater used in the residential dorms, which currently accounts for 49% of all UCSC main campus freshwater use (Campus Sustainability Plan 2013-16). To do so, the Marine Conversation class set up an experiment in the Crown and Stevenson dorms. Two buildings in each college had passive approaches, like flyers and posters, explaining how much water we consume each day and tips for reducing our water use. Two other buildings had a more active approach, shower timers that allowed students to time themselves in the shower voluntarily. Two other buildings had no passive or active treatments applied. Representatives from the project met with each college's residential advisers to explain the project and encourage them to talk to residents about it.

A poster in a Stevenson residential dorm from the Marine Conservation class project.

Travis explains: "Our hypothesis was that more direct approaches of sustainability (giving them shower timers) would influence a more positive behavioral change concerning freshwater sustainability. By measuring residential water consumption from month to month we discovered that there is evidence that when students are given tools to accomplish sustainable actions, there are more likely to do so. However, because we were working in such a short time frame (2 and a half weeks) we could not gather more substantial data."

Though the project was cut short by the length of the quarter system, Travis and other students in the class will be continuing the project in a more robust form in spring quarter 2014, partnering with other campus sustainability efforts. Drop Your Own Drip (DYOD) is another water conservation program on campus through the Student Environmental Center that uses mock water bills to demonstrate to students how much water they're using. Travis says he and his teammates are open to a partnership with DYOD if it makes sense logistically to combine efforts, and they are hoping to move ahead with planning this quarter.

Travis acknowledges that at UCSC, "water use has been reduced over the years to great effect, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Water is a valuable resource that is not infinite. This should be clear to everyone in California since Governor Brown just declared California to be in a state of drought emergency." We each have control over how much water we consume each day, and with projects like this and others on campus, we collectively have the power to encourage others to be more mindful of water use.

To learn more about the project, please email Travis at ttrinh2 [at]