Last Saturday, April 11, Sustainable Hudson Valley met at Vassar for its Spring Conference to discuss building the region’s “blue economy,” addressing questions about how to make the Hudson Valley’s water system more sustainable through improving efficiency, reducing usage, reduced contamination, and increasing access to waterways. This conference was timely, given California’s Governor Brown Executive Order B-29-15, issued on April 1, limiting water consumption because of the state’s severe ongoing drought.
Due to the low prices of water and the lack of concern about water conservation in the Northeast, Vassar’s sustainability efforts have focused little on these topics.
We at The Miscellany News believe that Vassar needs to improve consciousness about water usage and increase its efforts, particularly those related to water conservation and quality, through increased financing from the College.
With limited funding, the Office of Sustainability has been working with B&G to accomplish some water efficiency measures. These include the replacement of toilets with dual flush toilets, fixing leaking underground pipes, installing soil moisture monitors on athletic fields to incorporate smarter irrigation, using native plantings to reduce irrigation needs, and creating rain gardens. Through these efforts, Vassar has been able to halve water consumption from 2004-2005 to 2012-2013.
Even though New York’s climate is not nearly as dry as California’s, drought could still happen here, especially as temperatures continue to rise and the population continues to increase. Of course, the College will also be saving money on its water bill with improved water efficiency measures.
We at The Miscellany News believe that there are numerous additional improvements Vassar could make to decrease its water consumption. The new science building will include a rainwater catchment system that will provide irrigation water for surrounding areas. More of these systems should be installed, as they decrease the amount of water running off into waterways, which carry chemicals from lawns, as well as reduce the amount of potable water used for irrigation.
Another vital upgrade the College should implement is installing meters to check water usage within different buildings. These meters would allow B&G to monitor water usage around campus, allowing them to quickly identify possible leaks, and seeing where improvements can be made. If Raymond and Strong, two similarly sized and occupied dorms, had significantly different water usage, for example, it would be noted and the source of these differences located, permitting increased efficiency where applicable.
As with all sustainability efforts, improving water efficiency will require participation from members of the community and behavioral changes. A few years ago, low flow shower heads were installed in some dorms. These shower heads can halve water use in showers. However, students were resistant to this change, and the shower heads were removed.
Students need to be more conscious of their consumption to allow for these changes, measures to decrease not just consumption, but also the amount of wastewater being sent to treatment facilities. This can be accomplished by handling some wastewater on site through natural systems. Oberlin College has a constructed wetland that cleans wastewater for greywater reuse by replicating the water cleansing power of a wetland using a variety of cleansing plants, bacteria, protozoa, and other organisms. Vassar could install such a system and develop a system for reuse of greywater on campus for toilets and irrigation.
We feel that Vassar’s lack of investment in greater water conservation efforts is reflective of a general lack of investment in sustainability. Sustainability is often an afterthought in planning decisions, when it must be made a priority throughout all projects the College pursues. Many of these projects will save Vassar money in the long run, and will contribute to diminishing the ecological footprint of the College.
There are, of course, other areas of sustainability in addition to water conservation where the College can make large improvements. One such area is energy. Measures for energy efficiency are vast, including sensored lighting retrofits, LED lighting, improved insulation, and building level energy metering. Vassar could invest in renewable energy sources by installing rooftop solar panels on campus, purchasing land near campus for a solar farm to power campus, or perform similar measures with wind power. These projects would pay themselves off and would allow for stability in the energy market, meaning energy prices would not be dependant on fossil fuel prices.
Another area where improvements can be made is with waste. Vassar struggles with consistently being able to properly dispose of compost and recycling, and different educational campaigns and infrastructure changes could help remedy this issue. Paper purchased by the College is required to be only 30% recycled content, and increasing this amount would have a large impact. Changing the campus waste stream would involve changes in purchasing of products as well as behavioral changes for proper disposal and waste minimization.
Now is an important time for the College to take sustainability efforts seriously, as the campus master planning process is underway and the current timeline hopes to have final recommendations for the Administration and Board of Trustees by December 2015. We believe that incorporating water conservation and other sustainability initiatives in this master plan would show the community that Vassar takes these issues seriously and is taking action. As an educational institution, Vassar, and other colleges, must help to lead the way in the country for improved sustainability efforts. Places of higher learning have been the sites of change throughout time, and by showing a commitment to these issues, Vassar can continue to be a model for other institutions.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.