During the drought in 2002, it became clear that UNC-Chapel Hill would need to improve water conservation efforts on campus. In addition to viewing water conservation as a good business practice and good for the environment, Carolina also began to think of it as a means to make the University more resilient to drought and supply disruptions.
In 2009 the University invested in the construction of several innovative systems that would allow it to reduce potable, or drinkable, water use. One such system collects wastewater that would be discharged through creeks off campus, provides additional treatment and disinfection, and then pumps the water to campus. This reclaimed water is used to flush toilets and irrigate campus landscaping, and it is also used in the cooling towers for the University’s chilled water plants, which provide air conditioning to most campus buildings. Additionally, chiller plants at UNC Hospitals, which use 90 million gallons of water per year, are served by the system. Both the UNC campus and UNC Hospitals are now more resilient to drought and supply disruptions, which in turn benefits the entire community.
In the Fall of 2016, under Chancellor Carol Folt’s leadership, UNC-Chapel Hill furthered its commitment to environmental stewardship with the launch of the Three Zeros Environmental Initiative, consisting of three goals — water neutrality, zero waste to landfills and greenhouse gas neutrality.
Thanks, in part, to the important work done in 2009 in response to the drought, Carolina is already water neutral by one measure- the University uses less water than falls on campus annually. The infrastructure in place reduces potable water use on campus and helps to recycle stormwater and treated wastewater.
Walking around campus, you would never know that one of the many ways that UNC-Chapel Hill reduces water usage is through cisterns that collect and hold rainwater. Buried underground on campus, these enormous cisterns can hold up to 350,000 gallons of water.
There are several cisterns that collect rainwater across campus. There are two cisterns installed under the historic quad in front of Hanes Hall, one beneath the parking lot at Boshamer Stadium, another beneath the Bell Tower, which serves Kenan Stadium, and also under the lawn at the FedEx Global Education Center. At the former Bell Tower parking lot, an integrated, non-potable water system features a comprehensive water management strategy. Rainwater that falls on the roof of the Genome Sciences Building is stored in a lined, stone-filled cistern. This roof water, once treated with UV and salt electrolysis, is used to flush toilets in the Genome Sciences Building, and to irrigate the Kenan Stadium football field and the surrounding landscapes.
At UNC, reclaimed water irrigates several National Collegiate Athletic Association grass fields, using 10 million gallons of water per year. This water is also used to irrigate the turf at Boshamer Baseball Stadium, Anderson Softball Stadium, and Fetzer Soccer Stadium.
“By August 2018 we plan to have all of our fields on reclaimed water,” said Casey Carrick, director of athletic grounds and turf management. “We can save a lot of money since using reclaimed water is a fraction of what it costs to use potable water, and reclaimed water is close in minerals to the potable water. There isn’t any odor.”
The reclaimed water system was initially put in place as a collaborative project between the University and Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) as a water conservation project that would save costs for the University and expand the water supply capacity for the community. The proximity of the UNC campus to OWASA Reclaimed Water plant saves OWASA energy in cleaning potable water. UNC Athletics was able to benefit from the new lines running from the OWASA plant and began using the same water for field and turf irrigation.
“We don’t want to impact services to the community,” Carrick said. “By using reclaimed water, we’re helping the town become more drought resistant and leaving more potable water for the surrounding areas.”
Not only does using this system reduce the amount of potable water used by the campus annually, but reclaiming the water also recycles the fertilizer and avoids sending nutrients downstream, improving the water quality in the Jordan Lake.
Using reclaimed water is not the only net-zero water practice put in place within Athletics. Low flow fixtures are used in showerheads and toilets in multiple athletic facilities across campus.
“The greater benefit of the Three Zeros Initiative is being felt throughout our region,” said Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor of campus enterprises and chief sustainability officer. “Whether it is working with Athletics to improve water quality downstream through reclaimed water, or collecting rainwater for the athletic fields, this partnership is having a direct impact on improving North Carolina’s environmental footprint.”
In addition to using less potable water, Carolina also maintains the goal of improving water quality for water exiting campus. The recently completed Battle Grove restoration project turned a piped stream behind McIver residence hall into a beautiful, thriving brook. Not only is it beautiful, but it functions as a way to remove excess nutrients from the water before it flows off-campus, and provides a living-learning laboratory for students.
The UNC Energy Services Stormwater Management group was awarded a grant with which they will be able to retrofit the pond at the Outdoor Education Center and reduce sediment and nutrients in runoff sent to Chapel Creek, which eventually empties into Jordan Lake. Reducing nutrient runoff from campus will improve the quality of Jordan Lake, which has been a goal of the State.
Carolina hopes to move forward in all aspects of the Three Zeros Environmental Initiative through a variety of projects. In the coming year, the University will reduce coal use at its cogeneration facility and will implement a solar storage project at Carolina North. For more information about the Three Zeros Initiative, visit the Three Zeros Environmental Initiative website.
About the author: Olivia James is the Communications Manager for Campus Enterprises at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as the Three Zeros Environmental Initiative.
Featured image: Panoramic view of UNC Bell Tower. Photo credit: Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.