University ensures compliance with new emergency California water restrictions

JiWon Lee | Daily Trojan

Amid severe drought conditions, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California mandated outdoor water restrictions for 6 million Southern California residents in June. Current University water usage mostly complies with the new requirements and the University plans to continue expanding water conservation efforts around campus. 

After record-low precipitation in January, February and March, California faces its third consecutive year of drought. According to new research, the U.S. Southwest is undergoing the driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years. Data from the California Department of Water Resources shows many major water supply reservoirs at levels below their historical averages. In Southern California, at the time of publication, Cachuma Lake is at 43% capacity and Lake Casitas at 31% — their historical averages for the date being 57% and 41%, respectively. The Sierra snowpacks, which feed California reservoirs and rivers, are also depleted. 

“[The water shortage] is not a new problem or one that’s ever going to go away,” said Dan McCurry, an assistant professor of environmental engineering. “We have recurring droughts every five [to] 10 years in California and probably the biggest problem is that we have to import about 90% of our water. We get almost no water naturally, locally in L.A. Most of it comes from big aqueducts from hundreds of miles away from the Sierras and the Colorado River. And all the water that we import ultimately comes from snowmelt from the Sierras in the Rockies. So as the snowpack gets seemingly more unreliable every year, that’s just not going to be a problem that goes away.”

To stretch water supply, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the largest water distributors for the region, set outdoor restrictions for several Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura county communities. The rules, which went into effect June 1 and will remain for a year, include limits on outdoor watering to once or twice a week and water budgets for residents.

The California Water Boards also issued its second set of emergency regulations this year, following earlier board restrictions in January. The new regulations ban the use of drinkable water on nonfunctional turfs. 

The new emergency regulations will not significantly affect the University’s campus operations, Mick Dalrymple, the University’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. University water conservation efforts over the years have ensured its compliance with current regulations, Dalrymple said. 

Since 2006, watering of many athletic fields has been reduced by more than 50%.

“We’ve been working on reducing water waste since about 16 years ago, starting with athletics facilities and [their] fields,” Dalrymple said. “We’ve already met or exceeded most of the emergency conservation measures outlined by the [Los Angeles Department of Water and Power], and all of our campuses are basically in 100% compliance with the new restrictions.”

The University already limits watering of campus green spaces and fields to twice a week, Dalrymple said. The restrictions, however, required USC Facilities Planning and Management to alter the watering schedule for some campus areas to ensure the areas’ addresses matched correct watering days issued. 

“We basically did this painstaking process of mapping all of the irrigation controllers to the nearest building,” Dalrymple said. “We had to do some rescheduling according to [the new watering requirements], but essentially we were already pretty much in compliance.”

All USC-owned and operated “off-site” buildings are 100% compliant with the outdoor watering restrictions, including time of the day and address designations.

The University plans to stop watering nonfunctional grass plots that are not used for activities and events, Dalrymple said. A challenge in doing so, he said, will be ensuring that the trees on these plots, which provide important benefits such as heat protection and clean air, are still adequately watered. 

The University is currently developing a landscape master plan which will aid in identifying additional places where grass can be replaced with native and climate-adapted vegetation, as well as best irrigation practices.

As outlined by the outdoor watering reduction strategy, the University will strive for continuous improvement and reevaluate and update plans as needed. 

Some students hope the University can better support water conservation knowledge and action on an individual level. Nick Criscito, a rising senior majoring in health and the human sciences, said he has seen some of the University’s water conservation initiatives taking place such as the transition to more drought-tolerant plants. As an environmental enthusiast, Criscito said he enjoys learning about the University’s sustainability efforts, but said he believes more can be done to raise awareness of efforts such as water conservation on campus, and the ways in which students can participate in them. 

“[The conservation efforts are] not mentioned a lot,” Criscito said. “[The University does] mention their sustainability practices, but when it comes to water conservation, I think that they could do a lot more, especially with trying to become more open about it and telling people what they’re doing and how people can help.”

Criscito said limiting shower times, cutting down on unnecessary outdoor watering and reducing or recycling water are actions that the University and students can take to further reduce water usage. 

For water conservation on an individual level, Darymple also said one important action students can take is limiting the time they spend showering. 

“Probably the biggest opportunity from a behavior standpoint would be for students who live in the dorms, but they can also practice this in their apartments as well if they live off campus … [is to] manage your showers to a five-minute shower,” Dalrymple said. “That will save a very significant amount of water going down the drain.”

Since 2015, the University has replaced around 6,800 old water fixtures and 1,650 old faucets with low-flow models. The University is continuing to look into retrofitting showers, Dalrymple said, and FPM is setting up a process by which students will be able to report water leaks on campus. 

The University’s outdoor watering reduction strategy supports Assignment: Earth, its 2028 sustainability framework announced in April, which includes the goal of reducing potable water use by 20%.