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Monday December 5th

UNC Water Plan aims to reduce consumption and amplify research

The UNC water tower stands tall at Manning Drive on Aug. 17, 2022.
Buy Photos The UNC water tower stands tall at Manning Drive on Aug. 17, 2022.

When students first set foot on campus in the eighteenth century, The Old Well was the only source that provided drinking and bathing water. As UNC grew into the University that it is today, the water and sewer systems have also expanded.

Water sustainability is one of the main missions of Sustainable Carolina, UNC's campus-wide organization dedicated to reducing environmental footprint. The organization's new water plan has prioritized reducing consumption and amplifying research. 

“Water is a necessary, important resource,” Margaret Holton, Water Resources Manager for UNC Energy Services, said in an email statement. “The water plan pulls together work that has and is going on on campus, both in the sustainability and the research areas.”

In 1976, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC water systems were combined to form a single utility that is now called the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA), Melanie Elliott, Sustainability Analyst at Sustainable Carolina and a contributor to the new UNC Water Plan, said.

“It’s fair to say that UNC was a major catalyst for the water system that we have now and the infrastructure - and we’re still responsible for a lot of that,” Elliot said. 

The newly developed plan was published on Earth Day 2022 and outlines two overarching goals. 

It first seeks to reduce UNC's water footprint by continuing to reduce potable water consumption and minimizing water use, while also helping maintain stormwater runoff and pollutant load. 

Additionally, the plan aims to amplify water research on campus by creating a network of community sustainability partners.

In order to ensure that enough potable water is available for consumption, contact and research — the University uses non-potable, reclaimed water for activities that do not require drinking-quality water. 

The majority of this water goes to cooling systems that cool University buildings, but the reclaimed water can also be used for toilet flushing and irrigation. 

Landscaping maintenance is another big consumer of water on campus and uses harvested rainwater through campus systems as opposed to potable water, Catherine Brennan, the Executive Director of UNC's Environment, Health and Safety department said. 

Efforts that use water-efficient fixtures, such as low-flow toilets and automatic sink fixtures also reduce water consumption, as well as the elimination of dining trays by Carolina Dining Services.

“The potable water use is decreasing, even though our water use overall — when you combine potable and non-potable water — stays relatively the same and actually increases some years, because we have more campus users,” Elliott said.

On campus organizations such as the Water Institute, the Institute of Marine Sciences, and the Institute for the Environment are all dedicated to University's water research. 

“Connecting to research is a big goal for us in Sustainable Carolina,” said Piehler. “Water is especially exciting in that regard in terms of trying to connect to research, because there's amazing water research across campus.”

OWASA has partnered with researchers to provide real world utility data, in order to conduct locally based research. 

The age of UNC’s campus and building infrastructure is something that those working on the water plan have had to constantly consider.

“We have these historic buildings and they're beautiful. But that also means that some of that infrastructure is old,” said Elliott. “It can be difficult and expensive to make improvements.”

However, Elliott the team is having greater success with newer buildings. They are constructing more water efficient buildings and are considering building more green roofs.

“The plan is exciting because it doesn't say we're there yet,” said Piehler. “But we decided that in the water plan, we wanted to keep raising aspirations for water reuse, for water efficiency. And we have, I think, continued to do that in this plan, and done it in a really nice, collaborative manner.”


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