Students from around the Claremont Colleges began investigating water use on campus in 2007. They concluded that the campuses were using close to twice the sustainable amount of water, which sparked student, faculty and administrative efforts to find a way to achieve sustainability.
Five years later, progress is underway on a water reclamation project that could nearly halve our water use, bringing it down to or below the sustainable level, which is estimated to be around 60 percent of the current level.
The proposed water reclamation project works in a pretty simple way: two small water reclamation plants would be built within the borders of the 5Cs. All of the sewage from the schools, which accounts for 42 percent of the overall water used, would be treated in these plants and then reused for landscape irrigation—the other 58 percent of water usage.
Sustainable water use at the 5Cs is especially important because Golden State Water Company (GSWC), the California public water utility, purchases and imports 36 percent of the water used in Claremont, a practice that is less sustainable than using local water.
Richard Haskell, a Harvey Mudd College physics professor who came up with the idea for the water reclamation project, said that he sees no downsides to the proposed plan.
“It is the right direction to go,” he said. Haskell has been working on the project since 2007, though it has only been in the last couple of years that he and his team have had a concrete plan.
The current plan was created in March 2010 in response to issues with GSWC. The company has a monopoly on retail sales of water in the state, which presented Haskell’s initial plan for reclamation plants to supply all of Claremont with legal issues.
Constructing the plants on the private land of the campuses will nullify these problems, he said. However, as the plan moves forward, a law firm specializing in water-related issues has been contracted to avoid any potential complications.
One of the biggest moments for the water reclamation project came this past spring, when Dustin Zubke HM ’13 presented the proposal to the Claremont University Consortium (CUC) Council of Presidents. Zubke worked with Professor Haskell to develop a proposal that addressed the need for the project as well as implementation strategies. The council approved their proposal, allowing the project to begin to truly advance.
Right now, the plans are tentatively approved, but CUC has not yet made its final decision as to whether the project will happen or not. This decision is expected by the end of 2013.
The next year will be used to investigate the many issues facing the project. The legal right of the colleges to collect their own sewage will be determined, and a six- to nine-month professional engineering study will be conducted to determine whether the information collected by Zubke and other students is accurate and whether the proposed plan is sensible.
Professor Haskell remains optimistic.
“We must persevere,” he said. He added that the project “makes sense in the long term.”
Zubke’s proposal cites three important benefits of the project: “A water reclamation system on the Claremont Colleges has the potential to save the colleges a significant amount of money, provide a valuable marketing asset and considerably improve the sustainability of the colleges.”
With water costs on the rise, the project would help protect the colleges from future monetary strains by reducing their dependence on outside water. GSWC has already announced a planned 10 percent increase in water rates for the next year and rates will only continue to rise. Zubke projected that the reclamation system could save the colleges up to $26.5 million over the next 20 years.
Zubke pointed out the public relations benefits of the project, but these benefits are time-sensitive. No American private educational institution has its own water reclamation system currently, so the 5Cs could lead the way not just for Southern California, but for colleges and universities in general, thereby improving the consortium’s image to students, parents and donors and paving the way for a lot of grant opportunities. Because it is such a new idea at this time, Professor Haskell estimated that he could come up with half the total cost of the project, an estimated $5 to $10 million, with grant money. As time passes, however, that possibility declines, with schools like Stanford pursuing similar projects.
Each of the Claremont Colleges has a statement regarding the importance of sustainability on its website, showing that each college maintains goals that this project would help achieve. By implementing the water reclamation system, the colleges could reduce their water consumption by 42 percent, making them sustainable while also eliminating the need for imported water.
The Water Action Group of Sustainable Claremont is pursuing similar goals for the city of Claremont. While it isn’t currently legally feasible to create a plan for an area larger than the colleges, this system could still serve as a model for surrounding communities to end their own dependence on imported water.