Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

UA efforts to harvest, conserve water adding up

By Nigel Shemanski
harvestd water at the UA campus

Photo by Nigel Shemanski
A waterfall of harvested water pours into a pond found at the UA's College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. 

A garden containing a waterfall-fed pond and lush, green plant life might not come to mind when thinking of a desert landscape. But rainwater harvesting and other sustainability practices have created this oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert behind the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture building.

“Historically desert landscapes don’t win awards. They’re just not lush enough,” explained Ron Stoltz, associate dean of the college. This design, featuring various species of desert plants, wildflowers and native trees as well as the large pond, won a 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Design Award.

“We harvest, and have available to use, 230,000 gallons,” Stoltz said, enough water to cover all of the garden’s irrigation needs most years.  Rainwater drains from the 11,500-square-foot roof into a cistern. Water also comes from the building’s drinking fountains, and the campus-wide drinking well, which is backwashed daily to clean the filter of impurities. Even the condensate from the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning system contributes up to 95,000 gallons per year. 

The College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is not the only building on campus that receives the benefits of harvested water. With the additions of rainwater harvesting landscapes to new and existing buildings, the use of reclaimed water for irrigation, and environmentally friendly urinals, the university is adopting a variety of water-conservation practices across the campus. mesquite bosque and pond

Photo by Nigel Shemanski
A ramp cuts through a mesquite bosque, leading to a viewing area of the pond at the UA's College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. 

The UA effort is gaining recognition. The National Wildlife Federation’s “Campus Report Card,” which compared 1,068 institutions, ranked the UA among the top six of 334 colleges given exemplary marks for sustainability activities in the 2008 report.   

“I do think that the University is doing a good job addressing sustainability,” said James Riley, who teaches a course giving students the opportunity to get hands-on experience installing water-harvesting projects on campus.

Riley, a professor and research scientist for the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, has been installing rainwater harvesting projects to the campus landscapes since 2006, with the help of the UA staff and students. (The basic principles of water harvesting are described in related story.

Riley and his students have installed water-harvesting projects at Saguaro Hall, Cochise Hall, Optical Sciences, UA Visitor Center, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, and the Student Recreation Center.Water harvesting project at the UA campus

Photo by Nigel Shemanski
Students in James Riley’s Water Harvesting course created this addition to the landscape in the spring of 2011 on the UA campus at Park and Speedway.

The cooperation of everyone involved is essential for these projects to reach their full potential, he emphasized.

“The key is the faculty, the students, and the staff,” said Riley. The teachers and students are important in the planning and installation of the projects, he said, but the staff is needed to maintain the projects once the semester ends.

Riley is also working with UA Campus Planner Grant Mccormick and others on the Surface Water Working Group to do additional projects on campus to improve water sustainability. These projects include directing rainwater into vegetated areas to reduce flooding near the Second Street Garage, as well as preventing flooding in the Integrated Learning Center.

“There is a general idea that we should try and use less water,” said Riley. Despite the university’s growth, the UA has not increased its water use in the past 10 years, he said.

The UA Facilities Management, Student Unions Facilities staff, and Residence Life Facilities Operations are also focusing on reducing water use inside buildings, said Joseph Abraham, director of the UA Office of Sustainability. One example of this is the installation of environmentally friendly urinals.

The UA recently installed Ecoblue Cube systems in many of the urinals in a number of campus buildings. Instead of flushing after each use of the urinal, this system uses beneficial bacteria to clean the pipes and eliminate odor-causing bacteria. Staff members flush the urinals only once a day, Abraham said, making them approximately 99 percent waterless.

The urinals are only one of many steps the University of Arizona is taking to increase its sustainability. Solar panels supply the UA with over 500 kilowatts of energy and a car-share program with hybrid and electric vehicles are other current programs the UA has to aid in sustainability. The UA will also launch a post-consumer composting system in the Student Union next semester, said Abraham.

“I would say we are in the top third,” said Abraham, when it comes to campus sustainability among colleges.

Many of these efforts were recent. Riley’s water-harvesting course started in 2006, the Campus Sustainability effort was launched in 2007, and the College of Landscape Architecture award-winning landscape was installed in 2007.

These projects helped bring the UA recognition in the National Wildlife Federation report on campus sustainability. The NWF assessment also considers plans in the works.  And discussions with leaders reported here indicate the university will continue to look at water sustainability as a top priority.

Nigel Shemanski was a senior in Plant Sciences when he wrote this story. Now he is a graduate student in the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.


Related story by Nigel Shemanski
Basic principles of water harvesting

Water Harvesting Class ‘Reshaping’ Campus

UA Landscape Architecture Laboratory Wins Two Design Awards 

related story
next story
return to main stories page