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Heeding the call to curb water use

For the fifth year straight, the state of California has been in a drought, and Fresno State has put in place plans to tackle the drought both in the short- and long-term.

Gov. Jerry Brown directed institutional properties, such as Fresno State, on April 1 to immediately implement water efficiency measures to reduce potable water usage by 25 percent.

Rick Finden, director of Plant Operations at Fresno State, said that last year’s goal of 20 percent was already met, as the university was already given a deadline prior to Brown’s announcement to reduce water usage.

Finden said that the CSU campuses have been doing well in meeting the 20 percent goal, and now they are ramping up to meet the 25 percent cut.

The Plant Operations director said that the first thing they did was to change the settings in the computerized, centralized irrigation control system, and that it will be fairly easy for them to continue that reduction to 25 percent.

Fresno State is investing $230,000 in a new irrigation control system that allows plant operations to get better control of the 2,200 irrigation valves that turn on 22,000 sprinklers throughout campus.

The new system will replace the current system, which Finden said was written with Microsoft programming language DOS in the 1980s, with a new system that will allow irrigation workers to manage the sprinklers remotely.

Finden said the school has a radio channel dedicated solely to manage the sprinklers.

He said that with the new computer system, the worker who’s managing the system can walk around campus with smartphones and check the system to see which sprinkler head is not working.

Because of the intense workload, Finden said that they are attempting to modify their irrigation schedule to take into account and correct for old equipment and valves that break.

“We don’t have enough eyes out there and again, 22,000 sprinklers,” Finden said. “They’ve all been adjusted not to touch the concrete, but they act badly, and there’s a lot of pressure going through.”

Finden said that the wind can also blow and push the water from the sprinklers onto the sidewalks by the Maple Mall and near Bulldog Stadium, and that many weren’t designed with those kinds of walkways in mind. He said that the university will be replacing the old sprinkler heads with new low-flow heads that mist less to prevent water waste. He said that they were working as fast they can to replace them.

“We can only do 10 or 12 per day,” he said. “You’ve got to take them out of the ground, put them back in, and again there’s thousands of them. But we’ve been working on that for all winter and we’re continuing.”

Other schools in the CSU system such as Cal State Long Beach have implemented their own plans to create a more sustainable campus. In April, they started to convert 90,000 square feet, about two acres of lawn area, into drought tolerant landscaping. The school will save about  3.5 million gallons of water — about $15,000 in associated water costs — each year when it’s completed in August.

The Long Beach Press-Telegram reported CSULB received funding of about $274,000 from the CSU Chancellor’s Office and $180,000 in rebates from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. This left net costs to CSULB at $346,000 for the project.

Finden said that Fresno State doesn’t get grants like what Long Beach got from the MWD because we are our own water producer.

“The only thing we can do is get energy savings or any kind of savings and throw it back into more projects like these,” he said.

Fresno State is also looking at creating long-term goals toward a more sustainable campus. Finden said that there’s an ad hoc committee that will be making a presentation to the president’s cabinet on Monday to create a sustainability institute to even better organize the school’s efforts to reduce water usage, as well as its carbon footprint.

Finden hopes that the new institute won’t just be an administrative requirement, but could also be used as an academic resource to students.

“We’re going to recommend it and whether it can be adopted or not, if the funding’s there, we’ll move forward either way in our sustainability efforts,” he said.

Another long-term plan for the university is to rip out lawns in different landscapes around areas on campus like those around the Joyal Administration Building and O’Neill Park. Finden said that they are having a landscape architect come in to create a plan to transform the current landscape to what’s more appropriate for the Central Valley.

Finden said that there were also plans to convert the quad area of the campus into an oak grove to complement the oaks that were planted there 15 years ago.

The Plant Operations manager is starting to work on a palate of plant material that the future campus grounds will use to landscape and not go with the standard American traditional landscape of green grass “that we’ll just dump water on them.”

Finden hopes to get plants that only need to be watered in the beginning and not on a regular basis.

“We’re also looking at it from sustainability from economics, financially,” he said.

One of the challenges that the university is facing is how to deal with trees that are used to getting irrigated constantly from lawn water.

“The problem is that when we dial back down the water on the lawns, the trees lose their water because they were trained to drink lawn water,” Finden said. The tree roots don’t go down deep enough to tap into the aquifer, and “so what we’re going to have to watch and we’re very nervous about because we do value our trees — we have around 3,500 of them– is we’re going to have to watch them very carefully as we dial back the water and the temperature goes up.”

Finden said that the remedy for this is a 500-gallon water tank that is currently being used by the university to spot water for the trees when needed.