In a time of crippling drought, Foothill College is earning props for some impressive water-saving projects conservationists hope that institutions, businesses and homeowners alike can learn from.
The Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards coalition recognized the college’s environmental horticulture program March 23 as its 2015 organization category winner. The program’s cooling tower recapture system, rainwater catchment systems and recirculating water feature beat out eight other applicants in the category.
“It was very exciting, and it was wonderful to be recognized for our work at Foothill,” said Kathleen Santora, president of the Foothill-De Anza Foundation and benefactor of some of the Foothill projects.
The Environmental Horticulture Program’s succession of water-conservation projects began with the resurrection of a once-natural water feature. Decades ago, a creek meandered down from the hills and through Foothill’s campus before reaching the Bay. But throughout the years, construction of school buildings obscured the flow.
On the suggestion of horticulture faculty member Dan Svenson, the college installed a 125-foot-long recirculating stream, an educational tool demonstrating responsible landscape design techniques to students. Rainwater collected from the roof of the program’s construction lab building feeds into the stream, saving between 4,000 and 5,000 gallons of water each year.
The goal was to show that landscape designs could include attractive water features and still adhere to responsible, self-supporting water-conservation principles, Svenson said.
Santora, a Los Altos Hills resident who first enrolled in Foothill horticulture classes to learn methods for limiting water use on her own property, was inspired to fund a water conservation symposium, “Slow the Flow,” at the college. She helped secure grant support from the Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project for the installation of rainwater harvesting systems – one that provides water to the horticulture program’s nursery plants and a low-profile, 610-gallon system installed to show homeowners how to implement smaller-scale rainwater catchment efforts. Combined, the systems save approximately 30,000 gallons of water a year.
Conservation role model
Perhaps the horticulture program’s most significant contribution to water conservation is its cooling tower project. A year and a half ago, Svenson discovered that a large volume of water plunged into sewers after it cooled towers providing air conditioning across campus. Santora had the water tested. Although the runoff wasn’t suitable for human consumption, it would suffice to water lawns and ornamental plants. Now a recapture system reroutes the discharge to irrigation storage tanks, saving the district 50,000 gallons of water each year.
“Instead of throwing it down the drain, we captured it and redirected it to water the landscaping,” Santora said.
In addition to Santora, the Foothill-De Anza facilities department, including Tim Mechikoff and Mike Diefenbach, and numerous Foothill students, including Julie Davis, were instrumental in the completion of the cooling towers project, Svenson said.
Conservation accolades aside, Foothill College’s outreach efforts have made it a role model, according to Peter Drekmeier, policy director of coalition member organization Tuolumne River Trust.
“By educating others through tours and offering more than a dozen courses and seminars on water conservation and reuse, they’re leading the way in preparing our community for an uncertain water future as we appear to be entering a new area of extended droughts,” Drekmeier wrote in an email.