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Mills enacts conservation efforts in response to CA drought

Mills’ conservation efforts include planting more native and drought-resistant plants, as seen in front of GSB, and hand-watering select vegetation. (Photo by Tessa Love)
Mills’ conservation efforts include planting more native and drought-resistant plants, as seen in front of GSB, and hand-watering select vegetation. (Photo by Tessa Love)

When you imagine Mills College, your first image may be the beauty of the campus – tall trees, blooming flowers, lush green lawns. But all this vibrant vegetation takes its toll on the water supply, and as California’s worst drought in over a century continues to turn up the heat, the campus may have to sacrifice a little beauty for a little water. And students may have to sacrifice some showers, too.

“More than anything, we need to value our water flow,” said Linda Zitzner, Associate Vice President for Operations and co-chair of the Sustainability Committee, which works to unify various environmental departments and efforts across campus to promote and develop sustainable practices.

According to Zitzner, Mills has used about 28 million gallons of domestic water every year in the last four fiscal years and is on track to use that amount this year, too. But ideas are in the works to reduce the college’s use by 20 percent, the amount Governor Jerry Brown urged all Californians to cut in his recent drought declaration.

So far, no official drought plans have been made for Mills, but, according to Zitzner, the sustainability committee and the grounds crew are all investigating a number of options. But the most effective way to reduce water use, she said, will come from the community itself.

“The biggest savings opportunity we have is through behavioral modification and raising awareness with the college stakeholders,” she said.

This means that students and faculty alike must work together to save water and become more aware of the ways water use can be reduced. Zitzner and the sustainability committee plan to educate the community by conducting meetings, adding signage around the campus, and issuing reminders to do small things such as lowering number and length of showers, turning off water between tasks, and waiting to do laundry until you have a full load.

This grassroots technique proved useful when the campus attempted to reduce electrical use. The sustainability committee provided students with reminders to conserve energy, and with the information to illuminate where they had wasted.

“When people have the data to know,” Zitzner said, “when they can see that they have wasted, they can make a change.”

While behavioral changes will contribute to the bulk of the savings, water conservation is at the top of the Sustainability Committee’s list according to Zitzner, meaning other conservation efforts are being explored and enacted.

According to Dorothy Calimeris, director of auxiliary services, low flow shower nozzles were installed in all the residence halls a few years ago to be proactive about water conservation, and low flow toilets were installed in all new construction and replacement units. According to Zitzner, this practice will continue.

Plantings and irrigation systems are also being reevaluated for efficiency. This includes updating irrigation systems to reduce waste along the way, replacing invasive plants and grasses with more drought resistant options, and researching the best water practices for such plantings – including watering less. But, Zitzner said, they don’t want to underwater, either.

Leona Creek, which runs through the Mills campus, is noticeably dry this season. (Photo by Tessa Love)
Leona Creek, which runs through the Mills campus, is noticeably dry this season. (Photo by Tessa Love)

“We want to make sure everything remains healthy,” she said. “Stress happens to the trees and vegetation. It’s important that we optimize water delivery so they don’t die off. That would create more problems for us.”

As of now, the irrigation systems are turned off and the grounds crew is only hand watering targeted areas, but as soon as the plants begin to show stress the irrigation will come back on. The grounds crew is also discussing further irrigating Lake Aliso, Zitzner said, which is just beginning to fill up with water that funnels straight to the bay. Tapping into this source would put less of a burden on the domestic water supply, which supplies our tap water.

As for more long-term plans, the college is looking into grey water catching systems, specifically for laundry, but due to shortcomings in technology, infrastructure (water must be diligently separated and the water source must be controlled), and city permit issues, the process is moving slowly.

“There have been some hurdles,” Zitzner said, “but it’s still a goal.”

In the end, though, there is only so much these modifications can save. A change in every community members’ habits is what is most important.

“We need to get the most bang for our buck,” Zitzner said. “We can upgrade the technologies, we can replace plumbing, but there’s only so much that’s going to do. It really comes down to behavior.”

Check back with the Campanil for updates on Mills’ conservation efforts, and feel free to contact Linda Zitzner at with any tips or suggestions for how to save.

The Drought – What You Need to Know:

• The drought is caused by a large high pressure zone or ridge in the atmosphere off the West Coast, nearly four miles high and 2,000 miles long, which has been blocking storms from hitting California for over a year – an unprecedented amount of time for such a zone, according to the National Weather Service.

• The Sierra Nevada snowpack, an essential source of reserve water for much of California, is only 20 percent of the historical average, according to the Department of Water Resources.

• On Jan. 15, temperatures reached record highs throughout the Bay Area, bringing the number of broken records to 36 since Jan. 1. Oakland International Airport reached 77 degrees, with downtown Oakland at 76, both beating records set in 2009, according to the National Weather Service. Do we also perhaps want to include the cold snap just to make a point that the weather extremities this year have pointed toward a drought?

• According to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, around 150 wildfires have burned in California during the month of January alone. The average amount of fires for this time of year is around 12.

• The California Department of Public Health reported early last week that 17 small water districts in 10 California counties could run out of water in 60 to 120 days due to the drought. These include districts in the counties of Santa Cruz, Fresno, and Sonoma.

(Photo by Tessa Love)
(Photo by Tessa Love)

Five Tips to Conserve:

1. Shut off water when brushing your teeth, washing your face and doing the dishes.

2. Only do laundry when you have a full load.

3. Reduce the number and length of your showers.

4. Use the low-flow toilets correctly.

5. Abstain from washing your car and watering your lawn.