Examining APU’s water usage: Where we were, where we are, where we need to be

In honor of International Water Day, ZU News examined APU’s water usage

Azusa Pacific uses 67 million gallons of water a year on average. Yes — you read that correctly — 67 million gallons.

While this number may seem big, it is actually much smaller than it used to be just four years ago when APU used 83 million gallons in one year. This dramatic decrease of about 19 percent is due primarily to one man — Toney Snyder.

Snyder is the assistant director of environmental stewardship at APU, a position he has held since 2007. He is in charge of making sure the university is responsible with its water usage, power, natural gas and other resources.

“Normally during a drought you would use more water, but we achieved a reduction four years in a row. I think this shows APU is being a good steward of our water,” Snyder said.

Snyder got the job after a class at APU discovered the university was not being efficient with its resources. He looked at all areas where APU could cut down on water. The biggest area by far was exterior usage.

"Watering the fields is the largest [category],” Snyder said. “They say that about 60 percent of your water use will go to exterior usage, keeping your lawns green. I'm guessing we're pretty close to that.”

Snyder found several areas where APU could cut their water usage. One of them involved changing the sprinkler system to smart controllers.

"One of the first projects I did was with water sprinkler controllers. We have 37 of them on campus. They're little boxes, and in each box is a timer and all the different areas of campus are connected to those timers,” Snyder said.

These controllers used to be controlled manually, meaning facilities management workers would have to go around to each one on campus to turn it off. This caused a big problem when it rained because the sprinklers would still go off, and it would be a waste of water.

However, Snyder found grants to convert these sprinkler controllers to “smart” controllers, which you can control from a computer or phone through remote access.

“I spent about $100,000 to convert all 37 controllers to a smart controller. For every single one I submitted a rebate, because the water company says 'Thank you for being a good steward with your water. We're going to give you money back,’” Snyder said. “I invested about $100,000, and I got about $100,000 back in rebates.”  

This switch to smart controllers has saved APU countless gallons of water. Now whenever it rains, facilities workers can simply shut the sprinklers off from wherever they are.

“Typically this time of the year, we shut off our sprinklers for months,” Snyder said. “It's all based on the amount of rainfall we get. When we start getting hot weather again, we just turn the sprinklers back on.”

Snyder also got a grant to replace the sprinkler nozzles on about 18,000 sprinklers on campus. The new nozzles rotate, which allows the water time to sink into a patch of ground before that patch is sprayed again. The old style would just continuously spray an area, which would overwater it and lead to runoff, wasted water.

In addition, APU changed a large portion of their landscaping from grass to xeriscaping, a drought friendly landscape. This is more suited to the location APU is in, a desert.

This process took years, according to Snyder. In the meantime, he looked at other ways the university could use less water.

He put in 15 water bottle filling stations across campus, which allow students to fill their bottles quickly and easily, cutting down on bottled water consumption. The next place he turned was the bathroom.

“We also converted our urinals in the men's restrooms to a pint urinal, which uses a pint of water to flush instead of a gallon. The old style urinals would sometimes use up to two gallons of water,” Snyder said. “We also switched a lot of sinks to automatic faucets.”

While both of these measures save APU thousands of gallons of water a year, they pale in comparison to showers.

“APU is equipped with low-flow shower heads. We did this in 2006, I believe. We put over 1,000 of them in across the dormitories, Bowles, UP and UV,” Snyder said. “The shower head is shaped like a cone with a little lever on the side. If you push the lever, it decreases the amount of water.”

Snyder said these shower heads use two gallons per minute compared to the four gallons a minute from older shower heads. The lever on the side reduces that further to one gallon a minute.

According to Snyder, showers are by far the biggest category of water usage by students. He said the average college student takes 1.6 showers per day, and many of them have no idea how long they’re in there for.

“I bet if all students were aware and made an effort to reduce water, we could save a lot [more],” Snyder said.

Snyder is not alone in thinking showers are an issue. APU senior chemistry major Rachel Roller agreed people need to be more mindful of their shower time.

"The first step is just to be conscious of it. If you remember that water is a precious resource, especially here in California where we're recovering from a drought, maybe you don't need to take a 45 minute shower. Maybe you can take a five minute shower,” Roller said. “I have some friends who just like to play a song while they shower. They'll find one that's about five minutes long and they have to be done by the time the song is finished."

Roller currently serves as a research assistant for Louise Huang, director of APU’s Center for Research in Science (CRIS). Roller is helping Huang on a project on environmental stewardship and sustainability in higher education.

“I ended up researching reasons primarily why evangelical Christians aren't as concerned about the environment,” Roller said. “I started caring about environmental issues a lot more. I realized that as Christ followers we have a responsibility to care about the environment.”

Roller found two primary reasons for Christians not caring about the environment.

“Within the Christian community, there can be a distrust of science, which stems from a few things—the biggest being the evolution debate. Some people think that scientists are out to get Christians, so if they don't believe the theory of evolution, they might also not believe stuff about the environment,” Roller said. “Another big factor we've found is politics, honestly. Evangelical Christians tend to be more conservative, and the environment has historically been more of a liberal concern. I read one study that even if Christians read the Bible and think that they need to steward God's earth, they are hesitant to do anything about it because that would make them seem like a liberal hippy tree hugger. That's a big one.”

Sarah Richart, a professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, shared some of Roller’s views. Richart said she has been interested in sustainability from a young age, “way before it was cool.” She was one of the founding members of her environmental club in high school.

Richart spoke about an experience where she visited the Urbana Conference, a mission focused conference that occurs every three years, in 1993. She said she was shocked to find that out of the more than 300 mission groups there, only one was focused on environmental issues.

“We focus so much on salvation, that Jesus is going to come back, so [people think] it doesn’t matter what happens to the rest of the world,” Richart said.

Richart said she admires the steps APU has taken, especially xeriscaping, but thinks there is still room for improvement from the university.

“Because I’m a professor, I think where we’re losing is an educational opportunity,” Richart said. “We could have some kind of event at orientation, a session on sustainability, creation care and stewardship. We could invite students to think about the way they could cut down on thinks like water, power and other resources. It would be great if we could have an environmental studies major and offer more classes on that for people who are interested in that as a career.”

Richart is focused on educating students to be better stewards of the environment. She thinks many students take their resources, including water, for granted.

“We definitely take for granted that we have water delivered to our homes, that it’s clean,” Richart said. “We also take for granted that when we flush the toilet, that’s treated and goes back out safely into the environment.”

As a microbiologist, Richart is an expert on microorganisms, many of which are found in water. She spoke about this aspect in making drinking water safe.

“Water is important from a microbiological perspective, especially clean water,” Richart said. “Separating out drinking water from sewage was a big technological milestone in human health. We started seeing people dying from fewer infectious diseases when we started making clean water accessible, at least in this country.”

Although most of the U.S. has access to clean water, Richart pointed out an event just four years ago that has already faded to the back of the mind for many.

“People who live in Flint, Michigan do not take water for granted. They’re still drinking bottled water. That water has lead poisoning in it,” Richart said. “Depending on where you live in this country, that calls into question whether our water is always safe and whether the people who control the water are always working in our best interest.”

Richart also talked about how a large portion of the world doesn’t have access to clean water. Estimates vary, but approximately somewhere between 788 million and 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water across the world.

One group at APU is committed to raising awareness and fighting the global water crisis. Ride for Water is a team of APU students that ride across the U.S. to raise money to donate to charity:water, an organization that works to bring clean drinking water to people across the world.

While Richart admires the Ride for Water team’s work, she also thinks there is a lot of room for improvement on the home front. She suggested students be more mindful of everyday decisions that waste water, including drinking water from plastic water bottles, and their dietary decisions.

“Eating meat requires a lot more water than just eating plants,” Richart said. “Also, certain plant items require a lot of water. In California we have a lot of almond and pistachio farms. Those two nuts are notorious for taking a lot of water. I think a single pistachio nut requires about a gallon of water.”

To some, these everyday decisions may seem like small ones without consequences, but this is simply not true. Richart said many people are uneducated or miseducated about these things. She said just recently China announced that they would no longer accept recyclables from the U.S. This means that all the plastic that people think is getting recycled is actually just getting incinerated or put into a landfill, according to Richart.

Richart, Roller and Snyder are all focused on one thing: educating people on these issues. While they can make a small difference in their personal lives, others will have to start thinking about these issues too and implementing changes to make a noticable difference, like the 16 million gallons of water APU has saved on average across the past four years.

“There do tend to be barriers between Christians and caring for the environment, but I don't think any of those barriers are insurmountable,” Roller said. “Some of the things we can do are listen to each other, seek out evidence, be willing to partner with people we disagree with and the biggest one is to put God at the center of everything we do.”