Heart of Stanislaus State Water Conservation Effort Built Into Master Plan

To most observers, it’s only a pond.

Yes, the Reflecting Pond that graces the main entrance to California State University, Stanislaus is impressive, holding an estimated 4.5 million gallons of water at any given time.

But the most impressive part of the Reflecting Pond isn’t what it is, but what it does. The pond is the heart of a water storage system that, along with the four on-campus lakes, allows Stanislaus State to use and reuse water to the point where not a drop of the municipal supply is tapped for irrigation.

In these times of severe drought, having such a system in place is invaluable to the University’s ongoing drought response, even if irrigation might not have been foremost in the minds of those who designed the campus 50 years ago.

Tim Overgaauw, director of facilities operations, has pored over every original campus design he’s found, and has concluded that the primary purpose for the Reflecting Pond and campus lakes was flood control, not storage for irrigation.

“That pond was meant to hold the water until we could release it,” Overgaauw said. “It was always set to irrigate for us, but we’re finding that these events of water discomfort are fertile times for innovation. We’ve been dealt a fantastic hand, and now we’re being forced into maximizing what we have. We’ve been forced to walk the razor’s edge between not watering things and trying to be efficient with the water.”

And in that effort, the University is dedicating resources to ways in which all campus water can be used and reused with greater efficiency, no matter its source.

In May, Melody Maffei, the associate vice president for facilities services, published a list of 20 measures the University has taken to reduce water use. Some of these steps were taken as long ago as 10 years, while some are recent responses to the state mandate that all CSU campuses cut water usage by 25 percent.

A computerized control center is in place to oversee every aspect of water use, so storage can be accurately measured and release manipulated for maximum efficiency. The system eventually will include as many as 44 moisture sensors to determine when an area needs water. In addition, an on-campus weather station will alert the system when a storm is approaching and flows need to be curtailed.

Four additional drought responses are in the works that will place Stanislaus State at the forefront of water-efficient campuses.

The most significant involves the University cooling tower, the largest user of municipal water on campus. A front-end filtration system is being put in place that will allow the cooling tower to use irrigation water, which will yield an annual savings of 5 million gallons, or enough to overflow the Reflecting Pond.

“With a secondary filter skid we’ll treat it further and then hit it with UV light to limit any biological growth,” Overgaauw said. “If we got growth in the cooling towers, it would damage their efficiency, and we want power savings in addition to water savings. That will dramatically lower our domestic water use.”

Excess water from the cooling tower will be returned to the irrigation supply – another instance of how the University is striving to limit the single use of every drop of water.

How advanced is this system? In May, while on campus to give a presentation on the state’s outreach efforts in areas most hard-hit by the drought, Christopher Bonds, the senior engineering geologist for the Department of Water Resources, was given a tour of the system by Louie Oliveira, the University’s chief engineer.

Bonds came away impressed by what he saw.

“I found the 50-year-old Stanislaus State irrigation and reclamation system to be quite ahead of its time and impressive, especially with the recent addition of the automated control system for monitoring the campus water balance in real time,” Bonds wrote. “Being able to monitor the water balance at this detailed level creates many unique opportunities to realize water management efficiencies and improvements. The campus administrators now have actual water metrics on which they can capitalize.”

All of the measures in place still won’t keep large and growing areas of the scenic campus from turning brown in the summer months. It simply is not wise, prudent, or the correct response to attempt to keep lush grounds in times of severe drought.

“We’re trying to be strategic in what we keep green,” Overgaauw said. “For instance, we have a huge investment in the athletic fields, and it’s just not prudent to allow that investment to waste away. I’d rather make heavier cuts in other areas to keep the athletic fields usable.”

But it’s a bitter moment when a crew that takes exceptional pride in keeping Stanislaus State looking beautiful is told that the new water strategy will result in spreading shades of brown.

“This is not easy for our grounds department,” Overgaauw said. “This is not how they were trained. They’ve put thousands of hours into making this a place that draws kids to attend college in Turlock. But we’ve accepted the fact that having the greenest lawns in town is probably a bad idea. Everybody in this area is coming to terms with the idea that brown is the new green. It sends a message. It’s also a necessity.”

On the other hand, imagine how much of the Stanislaus State campus would have to be kept in permanent shades of brown had campus designers not decided to include the Reflecting Pond and the lakes in their plans.

Having all that water stored on campus puts Stanislaus State in position to be a leader in water conservation among California universities.

“Since Stanislaus State is a longtime institution of higher learning, there are numerous educational opportunities to get students actively involved in the monitoring and management of water on campus,” Bond wrote. “These unique water educational opportunities will serve to create more good stewards of California’s water resources, critically important as we venture into the fourth year of a record-setting drought.”

Updated: July 19, 2022