Cal, city of Berkeley take steps to curb water use

Water runoff from one of Cal's lawns is a relatively common occurence on campus. Photo: Patrick Hickey

Water runoff from one of Cal’s lawns is a relatively common occurrence on campus. Photo: Patrick Hickey

In response to the severe drought conditions that plague most of the state, Cal and the city of Berkeley have ramped up efforts to curb water use.

Runoff from several university lawns has been of particular concern to some local residents. Water from nearby sprinkler systems sometimes flows onto pathways and sidewalks around campus, but the runoff is unintentional and closely monitored, according to Sal Genito, associate director of Grounds, Custodial and Environmental Services for the University of California at Berkeley.

The university has already cut back on watering by 10 percent, as per a mandate from the governor’s office.

But an aging irrigation system — built more than 50 years ago — and a sloped campus make it difficult to evenly and sufficiently water all the vegetation on campus without some inefficiencies, Genito said.

He noted that staff members do their best to limit wasteful irrigation but cannot monitor all of the campus at once, so they appreciate help from members of the public.

“We’re always looking for people to report and share with us what they’re seeing because we definitely don’t have enough eyes, said Genito. “And we rely a lot on the public to help us identify those areas [with runoff].”

(In mid-July, Patrick Hickey sent Berkeleyside some photos of water from a sprinkler running down a path at UC Berkeley. When Berkeleyside posted the photos on Facebook, many people expressed dismay at the water run-off during such a severe drought.)

Efforts are currently underway to update Cal’s irrigation system, said Genito. New technology like a central control system, motion sensors and shutoff valves will help staff members control breaks and leaks more effectively than in the past.

By using new equipment to measure evapotranspiration — the combination of evaporation from the earth’s surface and transpiration from plants — the university can also determine the appropriate amount of water needed for irrigation, Genito said.

Looking ahead, the school has allotted funds for a new landscaping initiative that would convert around six lawns throughout campus to meadows, which are equally pleasant to the eye but are more drought resistant, according to Genito.

“They look just as beautiful, people will appreciate them just as much, and they use tremendously less amounts of water,” Genito said.

He estimated that Cal would save several thousand gallons of water per year due to the switch. And as more money becomes available, more grass will be converted to meadows, although lawns used for recreational purposes will remain.

But simply reducing the amount of water used for irrigation is not enough, Genito said. Watering of plants and other vegetation is already fairly low, and cutting off too much water to larger trees with shallow root systems could cause them to die, destabilize and potentially fall over from strong winds.

The real savings come from water conservation fixtures that would allow the school to reclaim and repurpose water for irrigation, according to Genito.

Water runoff on Cal's campus. Photo: Patrick Hickey

Water runoff on Cal’s campus. Photo: Patrick Hickey

And to save even more, the school must also focus its conservation efforts on other areas of water use. UC Berkeley uses over 600 million gallons of water a year and irrigation comprises less than 10% of that total, said Director of Sustainability Lisa McNeilly. Domestic uses, like showers and bathrooms, account for half of the total. Residence halls account for 25 percent.

Initiatives over the past few decades have already succeeded in reducing the university’s total water use by 17 percent since 1990, said McNeilly, even though the campus’s population and infrastructure has grown since then. Since February alone, Mcneilly said the school has managed to curb water use by 5-9 percent, partially due to more efficient irrigation and toilet retrofits.

Cal’s sustainability team current goal is to reduce potable water levels to 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2020 and 20% below 2008 levels if adjusting for population increases, according to its 2013 sustainability report.

The state of California and the city of Berkeley are also pursuing water conservation initiatives to complement local efforts. On the state level, new regulations imposed in late July could lead to fines of up to $500 for excessive water use.

In Berkeley, city officials have called for a 10 percent reduction in the city’s water consumption, according to a report by the city manager.

Fixing leaks in aging infrastructure and using less water for certain parks and medians are two measures mentioned by the report. The Public Works Department is also looking into the use of reclaimed water for median watering and vactor trucks, which unclog storm drains.

Berkeley has already reduced its total water use for several decades, according to the report. The city has curbed water consumption by 20 percent since 2000 and 36 percent since 1975.

Individual districts have joined in on the savings as well. Cleaners in downtown Berkeley have stopped pressure washing the sidewalks and streets, according to John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association.

Instead, they use a vacuum surface cleaner, which also uses water, but reclaims and recycles it so there is no runoff. But, while it’s more drought-friendly, the surface cleaner goes at about half the pace of normal pressure washing, Caner said.

Cleaners will still use pressure washing when there are health and safety concerns. In the case of animal and human feces, and sometimes garbage, the association will pressure wash the affected area to ensure it is completely clean.

Caner said the association is looking into more sophisticated cleaning equipment, which would cost around $10,000. He said the investment would likely be worthwhile.

“The board [of the Downtown Berkeley Association] is really committed to being very thoughtful in this and also being a leading business improvement district in the state,” he said.

New drought rules would see Berkeley reduce its water use (07.14.14)
EBMUD asks East Bay customers to cut water use by 10% (02.12.14)
Hallelujah! Prepare for a wet weekend in Berkeley (02.07.14)
Berkeley residents assess damage caused by high winds (11.22.13)
Breaking: High winds wreak havoc around Berkeley (11.21.13)
High temperatures, wind, prompt Berkeley red flag alert (04.30.13)

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  • Andrew

    I frequently see the sprinklers running in the median on Oxford (near Hearst) late at night, and it always strikes me as wasteful given the drought…hopefully the city will stop wasting water like this.

  • joyce olsson

    Add a brick to every toilet tank on campus?
    for a start…

  • chmod

    University floods the street almost daily with the useless median strip being massively over watered. Early AM. Car wash scale street water.

  • Heather62

    A friend of mine tells me the new baseball field on MLK over-waters and there’s run-off. Shame on them!!!

  • Another Brick in the Tank

    That may have worked in the old days of high-flow toilets but won’t be very effective since the campus has already converted to low-flow toilets.

  • Tootsie

    There has always been run off from that parcel of land; it seems to have gotten worse with the baseball field. Is that area part of a tributary of Derby Creek or something? I’ve noticed a lot of runoff over the years, most often during the winter. The water literally cascades curbside down the 1800 block of Derby Street. Drives me crazy whenever I see it.

  • Chris J

    Fwiw, when I do my dishes at home, I try to run my water as minimally as possible to conserve water. We also run showers for shorter periods and collect the water before it gets to temperature in large bins which I carry out to water our garden with.

    I’m sure all those whining about Cal are doing their own part…right?

  • Jennifer

    What’s the best way to report sightings of run off to the campus? I saw some pretty bad looking run off a few months ago by the west entrance and even took photos, but couldn’t figure out where to send them.

  • Biker 94703

    Yes in the teens they filled a creek bed just S of the park. Consequently it floods and bogs through there.

  • Itachee

    “In Berkeley, city officials have called for a 10% reduction in the city’s water consumption, according to a report by the city manager.” The Governor asked for 20% conservation at the first of the year. The State Water Resources Control Board mandated 20% in July. So it’s now August and Berkley, ground zero for environmental regulation, is still lagging at 10%. Other cities have achieved it. Sounds like do as I say not as I do – warranting a heft fine buy the State.

  • cshaff

    Concerns about water use at UC Berkeley (irrigation or other) can be called into the maintenance call center at 642-1032. I’m also happy to get reports at and will follow up as I work with campus grounds, maintenance, construction and sustainability staff, As Sal mentioned in the story above, staff can’t be every where all the time so we appreciate reports of things that look like they aren’t working right.

    I’m disappointed that the images with this story don’t really reflect the current campus water news, which is that overall use is down 5-9% since February, 2014 (we asked that be corrected above) and down more significantly on campus and in residence halls in the last few years despite an increase in square footage. We can still do more but campus staff have been working to reduce water use. Those interested can learn more at

  • BUSD Parent

    I’m wondering if BUSD has any clue about how to care for newly sodded playing fields. I’ve seen the fields at King Middle School, MLK/Derby, and now the new softball field at BHS deteriorate steadily after installation. First the grass yellows, and when heavy use begins, the grass starts thinning out. If they cannot do better, then given the water issues in this state, artificial turf makes some sense.

  • Guest

    What did CAL do with all that turf the Athletic department installed for the Real Madrid Football game at memorial stadium? Is that your idea of being sustainable?
    UC Berkeley is not sustainable. That’s why Administrators and Regents keep asking the State to increase funding. Instead of cutting back in tough times UC Capital Projects keep building and creating massive debt. Your spin on sustainability will garner you a paycheck but CAL is far from sustainable….

  • berkeleygrl

    why are there still so many median strips being overwatered (and why are they planted with grass that needs mowing) all over berkeley?