The passes and fails of Saddleback College’s water conservation efforts


Saddleback College converted to reclaimed water for irrigation uses. (Flickr/USDA/used with a CC-BY-2.0 license)

Saddleback College converted to reclaimed water for irrigation uses. (Flickr/USDA/used with a CC-BY-2.0 license)

Since 2012, California has faced record-breaking high temperatures and significantly decreased levels of snowpack, resulting in one of the worst recorded droughts in the state’s history. Almost five years later, swimming pools and manmade lakes remain full, and most turf lawns have kept their dark green color.

In response to the drought, Governor Brown implemented a statewide mandatory water reduction of 25 percent on April 1, 2015. The State Water Resource Control Board enforces the water conservation mandates.

Under the order, 50 million square feet of lawns will be replaced with drought tolerant landscapes and rebates were given to consumers who switched to more efficient appliances. Large landscapes like golf courses and college campuses are required to make “significant cuts” to usage.

Since the order was implemented, Saddleback College and South Orange County Community College District have taken several measures to reduce water consumption and increase conservation efforts.

Until the 2015-2016 El Niño, the state received almost no relief in the years that followed the 2012 declaration of drought. In January and again in March, the weather phenomenon brought an increased amount of precipitation to California and an overflow of water to some Northern California reservoirs.

But the winter’s rain and increased snow levels were not enough to end the historic drought, said Pacific Institute in a statement. Additionally, the increased levels of rain that followed El Niño have resulted in “weaker urban water conservation commitments.”

Although some reservoirs in Northern California are above historic average, with Lake Oroville at 118 percent, Shasta at 109 percent and Folsom at 115 percent, other factors like groundwater conditions and snowpack are taken into consideration when talking about drought relief.

As of May 2016, 25 percent of the state is experiencing “severe drought,” 28 percent is experiencing “extreme drought” and about 21 percent is affected by “exceptional drought,” according to United States Drought Monitor. Orange County is of the 21 percent facing exceptional drought.


Saddleback College’s water needs are met by Moulton Niguel Water District, which provides water, wastewater and recycled water to over 170,000 customers throughout southern Orange County. Cities include Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point and Mission Viejo.

“The College is always looking for ways to reduce our potable water consumption and our reclaim water use,” said a report on exterior and interior water conservation goals and accomplishments at Saddleback College. “Our primary goal is to reduce potable water use. In addition, our secondary goal is to reduce reclaim water consumption, although it is not yet required.”

Potable water refers to water that is safe to drink, complying with federal and state drinking water standards. Recycled water, or reclaimed water, refers to wastewater from sinks, showers and toilets that is collected by MNWD, and is purified through several levels of treatment. According to the water district, recycled water meets “strict standards” which are regulated by California Department of Public Health.

“Recycled water is used in manufacturing operations and to irrigate landscapes, including parks, school grounds, golf courses, freeway landscaping, streetscapes and common areas managed by many local community associations,” said MNWD in 2013 issue of their bi-monthly publication WaterLines.

Saddleback College converted irrigation of landscapes from potable water to recycled in May of 1995; around the time MNWD began expanding their treatment and use of the resource.

Reclaimed water makes up about 75 percent of the college’s total water use, according to a SOCCCD sustainability update from November 2015.

From the 1995 conversion to November 2015, when the report was published, the college used about 265 million gallons of recycled water, or about 189 households per year. By doing the math, this suggests an average of about 26.5 million gallons of recycled water user each year.

Because 26.5 million gallons account for about 75 percent of the college’s total water use, the college likely uses about 33 million gallons of recycled and potable water each year.

Louis Sessler, project manager for facilities and energy, or Michael James, assistant director of facilities, did not dispute these calculations.

A ledger obtained from Kevin Dalla Betta, fiscal services and budget administration at Saddleback College, offers some insight into the college’s spending on water.

Each month there are usually three separate charges; although in October 2015 and January 2016 there are two charges. Each month the dates and amounts billed are sporadic.

After studying the ledger for several minutes, Sessler and James concluded the most expensive charge was for potable water, the lesser charge was for recycled and the third charge was likely a service fee.

In October and December of 2015, as well as January through April of 2016, the college spent between $9,773 and $12,673 on both recycled and potable water. In August, September and November of 2015, the spending was about double, between $19,960 and $21,944.

The college saves about $75,000 annually by using recycled water, according to a SOCCCD Alternative Energy and Water Conservation Strategies report.

Roadside turf lawn is being watered along La Novia Ave in San Juan Capistrano despite day-time watering being prohibited year-round. (Kurtis Rattay/ Lariat)

Roadside turf lawn is being watered along La Novia Ave in San Juan Capistrano despite day-time watering being prohibited year-round. (Kurtis Rattay/ Lariat)

According to MNWD, recycled water is delivered through an entirely separate distribution system. On the Saddleback campus, reclaimed water is delivered through distinct purple pipes. Signs are visible where it is being used, warning against drinking the non-potable water.

Recycled water accounts for about 25 percent of MNWD’s total water supply. The remaining 75 percent is imported from “far-away sources like the Colorado River and Northern California.” In using recycled water, MNWD reduces dependency on imported potable water, cutting costs and conserving the resource.

Saddleback College uses recycled water for the irrigation of most landscapes. Until recently, several areas on campus were still irrigated with drinkable water.

In 2015 the college began using recycled water to irrigate the turf area behind bleachers at the campus’s baseball field. Before the change was made, potable water was still being used to irrigate the turf area.

Also in 2015, the college reduced potable water use by converting to recycled water for the Community Education Teen Driving Program. This building is located near the Village.

According to Sessler and James, all locations on campus are irrigated using recycled water except the area near the Child Development Center. This area is still irrigated using potable water because of the contaminants sometimes found in recycled water.

Consistent with the “secondary goal to reduce reclaim water consumption,” the college is in the process of installing a new campus-wide irrigation system, which is scheduled to be complete by July 1. The system will enable Faculty, Maintenance and Operation department to reduce recycled water use by 10 to 15 percent, according to a report.

The new system comes after the college finished the instillation of water efficient irrigation controllers in 2014.

“These controllers are the foundations for a campus wide computer controls irrigation system,” said the alternative energy and water conservation report. “[It] will allow the college to increase water efficiency and help reduce watering times by better management watering schedules for the whole college.”


Although the college has several reports and documents listing efforts to reduce water use, Robert Farnsworth, department chair of horticulture and landscape design, believes the college’s management of water for landscaping is “pathetic.”

“The grass is an enormous waste,” Farnsworth said. “And an insult is they say it is recycled water so it doesn’t matter. You don’t waste something just because it is recycled; it still has an impact.”

Depending on the species of grass, lawns use between 30 to 55 gallons of water per square foot, Farnsworth said.

The majority of the campus’s landscaping is done with green turf lawns. Currently Facilities, Maintenance and Operations do not know an estimate on the acres or square feet of green grass on campus.

“I have been on committees where they say ‘some people like to sit on grass.’ You can’t sit on [Saddleback’s] grass, it is too wet,” he said.

For Farnsworth, there are “much wiser choices.”

“There is an enormous difference in the amount of water used for drought tolerant plants and green turf lawns,” he said. “On the average, drought tolerant plants use a seventh of the amount.”

Professor Robert Farnsworth says drought tolerant plants require substantially less water to sustain themselves. (Flickr/Chris Hunkeler/CC BY 2.0)

Professor Robert Farnsworth says drought tolerant plants require substantially less water to sustain themselves. (Flickr/Chris Hunkeler/CC BY 2.0)

There are several areas on campus already landscaped with drought tolerant plants. Alternative Energy and Water Conservation Strategies report lists six of the larger areas, including front entrance to Fine Arts building, the Veterans Memorial, perimeters of Lots 9 and 10, the right side of Fine Arts, behind Student Services Center and the slope between Fine Arts and Learning Resource Center.

The Veterans Memorial, Fine Arts entrance and behind SSC were planted by students and are maintained by college grounds keepers. The slope between Fine Arts and Learning Resource Center was designed by an architect and planted by a contractor, James said.

Facilities Maintenance and Operations are currently redesigning and planting drought tolerant landscapes around campus. Right now about ten smaller campus areas are being redesigned and landscaped with these plants, James said. These areas will include the median and entrance to the Health Sciences building and backside of Administration and Governance Building.

New building projects like the Sciences Building the new auto-tech TAS Swing Space building near Lot 1 will also be landscaped with these types of plants.

To irrigate the drought tolerant landscapes, FMO is installing “low flow water systems” like bubblers and drip irrigation, a report said. These water efficient landscape redesigns are accomplished through collaboration of architects, faculty, students and college grounds keepers.

Farnsworth is currently working on furthering the use of water efficient plants around campus.

“We were given the opportunity to design and plant as a horticulture lab a new sustainable
garden at the rear of the SSC,” he said. “That is going to be a drought tolerant showcase. If that
is approved then we go around to the front of the building and do another project and the quad.”

In the mean time, while some areas are being converted to drought tolerant plants, other initiative
can be taken to reduce water use. According to Sessler, watering on campus is usually done
during the evening after most students and faculty leave.


On April 27, around 1:40 p.m. the turf lawn on the west side of College Drive West was being
watered. Some sprinklers overshot the grass, spraying into the road.

Daytime watering can lose between 20 and 25 percent of water due to evaporation from wind
and heat, according to California Drought Preparedness.
As of right now, recycled water is used only for landscaping projects on campus.
The central plant cooling towers are operated using potable water, accounting for about 30
percent of the colleges total potable water use, the water conservation strategies report said.

The cooling towers are currently being outfitted with a new infrastructure, making them capable
of running on recycled water. The project was approved by MNWD in the first week of May,
Sessler said.

The cooling towers help the campus’ air conditioning system operate more efficiently by cooling
equipment used for creating cold water. The cold water is then used in air conditioning units on

In total there are three towers that are used for all main buildings on campus, located
behind the Central Plant building, near Lot 4.

“Estimated reduction in the use of potable water is 4-6 million gallons per year,” the report said.

The report, dated mid November 2015, said the project was “currently under construction,” with
an original completion date of December 2015. The switch from potable water to recycled water
in the cooling towers will hopefully take place before July 1, Sessler said.

All restrooms at Saddleback College use potable water for sinks, toilets and urinals. There would
be a “tremendous amount of expense” for duel piping in any existing building, Sessler said.

Because of the “financial impact,” outfitting buildings with duel piping to use recycled water
will only be considered in future construction projects like the new Athletics Stadium, a report

The new Sciences Building will be a “model in the state for its environmentally-friendly design,”
Saddleback College’s President Burnett said in a statement. However, the new facility will also
operate restrooms using drinkable water.

The new Sciences Building will be LEED certified, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED buildings are certified by U.S. Green Building Council.

Several of the renovations done on campus, including the LRC and Fine Arts HVAC projects, were “designed with LEED criteria in mind,” according to the Sustainability Update report.

U.S. Green Building Council certifies buildings based on criteria, taking things into account like location, transportation, water efficiency, energy use, material, resources, innovation and indoor environmental quality. These standards will be “implemented immediately” in new construction projects, according to Draft Program Environmental Impact Report from April 2012.

To stay consistent with the LEED criteria of water efficiency, the district will explore options of reducing rainwater runoff, the environmental impact report said.

“We are doing some things opposite of how they should be in terms of rainwater management, Farnsworth said. “I am not just talking capture but directing runoff into the ocean instead of into plants.”

Areas like the faculty parking lot near the greenhouse are sloped towards the middle, draining the rainwater through a metal grate.

“Approximately 39 acres drain to the southeast corner of the campus,” an environmental impact report said. “Stormwater is channeled into a 36-inch reinforced concrete pipe, which extends a short distance to an off-campus point where it begins to slope steeply down into the canyon bottom.”

The water runoff is then drained into Trabuco Creek on Rancho Mission Viejo property.

The new Sciences Building will have a “themed demonstration garden,” which will be planted over an underground system for retaining rainwater, a statement said from the groundbreaking ceremony.

According to the “ongoing efforts” section of Exterior and Interior Water Conservation Goals and Accomplishments, FMO management periodically attends conferences on water conservation to learn about the latest conservation issues and recommendations for improving efforts.

The replacing of green lawns with drought tolerant plants, the new drip irrigation system and the replacing of potable water at the central cooling towers suggest the college is actively working on conserving water while California enters its fifth year of extreme drought.