Black-Water Reclamation Project Halted Following CUC Changes

A proposed sewage reclamation project at the Claremont Colleges could nearly halve the colleges’ water consumption and save $10 million over the next two decades—but for now, the project remains on hold following the departure of three key supporters within the Claremont University Consortium (CUC). 

According to Harvey Mudd College biophysics professor Dick Haskell, former CEO Robert Walton, Interim CEO Mel Dinkel and Vice President Tim Morrison had been supporters of the process of developing a water reclamation plant, but all three have now left CUC.

CUC CEO Stig Lanesskog, who began his role Aug. 1, confirmed that the project has been placed on hold but declined to answer further questions. 

Pomona College President David Oxtoby said that a big question for the CUC and the Claremont Colleges will be finding time to orchestrate planning to continue the project.

“We’re very interested in this, but we’ve got some big questions,” Oxtoby said, adding that Lanesskog has “a lot to figure out in planning in terms of facilities and space.”

Also contributing to the delay is the implementation of a new financial services system at the consortium, wrote Karen Sisson, the vice president and treasurer of Pomona College, in an email to TSL. The Business and Financial Affairs Committee, which includes the vice president for business affairs or treasurer at each college, was asked to do a financial analysis of the reclamation project but must first successfully implement the new system. 

Dustin Zubke HM ’13 researched the project extensively with Haskell in summer 2011. He found that 58 percent of water usage at the colleges is directed toward landscaping and uses potable water as its main resource. A black-water reclamation plant, which cleans and then recycles sewage water to satisfy outdoor and environmental water needs, would shift this resource from potable water to reclaimed, disinfected sewage water, meeting up to 72 percent of landscaping irrigation needs. Reclaimed water is disinfected and tertiary-treated by the system, and can be sprayed across campuses safely to serve the landscape irrigation needs.

In 2012, Zubke presented a 47-page proposal to the Council of Presidents at the CUC detailing the scientific- and policy-oriented aspects of this project.

The Council of Presidents approved funding for an engineering feasibility study that was completed this spring. The report belongs to the CUC and has not been made available to the public. 

Haskell said that some funding for the project, which would cost approximately $8.1 million for a 300,000-gallon plant and distribution network, is available through external sources like the California Water Foundation, the Bureau of Land Management and the state of California. He said that approximately $2 to $4 million could come from external funding. Over 20 years, the system is projected to save approximately $10 million. 

He said that while financing the project was not the issue, the invested time and effort necessary for its success is not available on the administrative level.

“It’s going to take a fair amount of oversight by the people at CUC … to oversee everything that’s going on and make sure everything is up to code,” Haskell said. “I think that’s what happened is that we have suddenly lost, unexpectedly, the three proponents of the project … and I think it’s all tied up. I’m concluding that CUC was a little top-heavy … they are clearing the decks, but unfortunately that’s left us with no one who has really been involved with and is knowledgeable about the project.”

Though work on the project is currently stalled, Zubke said that he saw his work as an opportunity to make an impact on the 5Cs, and learn more about policy at the consortium.

“I’ve learned how we actually deploy more sustainable infrastructure [at the colleges], how we actually get stuff out there,” he said. “And that’s what’s been really valuable for me. I’ve been able to see at what points the project has really struggled, and what are the pitfalls and the challenges in the core of this infrastructure.”

Oxtoby said that he expects the project to attract renewed attention in the future.

“In the long run I think reclamation of water is going to be really important for all of California, certainly for the Claremont Colleges,” Oxtoby said. “With the changes in staff right now it’s going to be hard to get this to the top of the agenda, but it’s going to be a high priority in the future.”

Caroline Bowman contributed reporting.

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