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UCLA needs to better publicize its sustainability plans to improve progress

(Cat Nordstrom/Daily Bruin)

By Payton Kammerer

January 26, 2020 11:28 pm

There’s a leak in UCLA’s titanic water conservation initiatives – and most students and faculty haven’t even realized they’re on board.

The University of California announced a goal to cut water use by 20% by 2020 back in 2014. By the end of 2019, UCLA had reduced water consumption by only 13%, a whopping 71 million gallons off target.

These goals aren’t the only disappointments within the sustainability campaign – and on the heels of a failed Zero Waste initiative, it’s easy for missing information about the university’s water goals to go unnoticed. Last week, the UCLA sustainability webpage on the project featured a 6-year-old graph of the university’s water use and was only updated after it was brought to the understaffed office of sustainability’s attention.

The UC water consumption goals aren’t being met by the Los Angeles campus. By 2025, UCLA should have cut its current water consumption by 36%, nearly tripling its current water savings in a time period one year shorter than the seven years provided by the 2014 UC initiative.

Catching up to the UC’s water consumption targets will require an enormous effort that must include support from the student body – but that support will only come if people notice that UCLA has fallen behind.

And that isn’t the case.

UCLA loves to boast about its sustainability goals. But when the university perpetually provides insufficient support for those initiatives, it’s no surprise they never come to fruition – and its water conservation targets are no exception. In the midst of such an ambitious sustainability campaign, UCLA needs to prioritize transparency and actively ensure that information on projects like these is disseminated in the most efficient way possible – even if it means admitting past failures.

As of now, very few students and faculty outside of sustainability circles are aware of these goals.

Even fewer are aware of the projects that have been undertaken in an effort to meet them, said Timothy Arnold, a second-year geography and environmental studies student and sustainability director for the Environmental Student Network.

“Most students in my ring at least are definitely aware of stuff like that and are in support of it,” Arnold said. “But I feel like, outside of that group of people, not a ton of people know exactly what’s going on in terms of what UCLA is doing, what they aren’t doing or maybe even things they should be doing.”

What little awareness there is of water-saving measures mostly comes from residents’ personal experiences, like using motion-activated faucets and water bottle refilling stations. The majority of Hill residents have little to no idea about all of the infrastructural projects implemented on the Hill, including drip-irrigation and low-flow fixtures, that have played a large part in a 25% reduction in water use since 2008.

And in the wake of Zero Waste, the university is in no place not to share this information.

Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental humanities and senior researcher at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said this lack of awareness translates to a missed opportunity for the sustainability projects to receive much-needed support.

“I don’t think that there’s a lot of communication about our progress on those goals to students and faculty, so it’s hard to know where we are,” Christensen said. “It’s hard to know how we might be able to engage and make a difference if we don’t know where we are.”

Spreading the word about UCLA’s conservation successes would also help bring hope to an increasingly bleak conversation about our environment.

Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer, said that awareness of what the university is doing yields conservation benefits beyond its immediate impact on campus.

“Part of our goal in sustainability – with our sustainability committee and the initiatives universitywide – is to really build a culture of sustainability, so it’s not only about what we do on campus, it’s also about the impact people have after they graduate,” Katz said.

Katz also said that Bruin Day attendees told her that what they learned on her sustainability tour made them excited to officially commit to attending UCLA.

But thus far, all of those eager students have returned to a campus that barely registers its own sustainability projects.

The root of the problem isn’t a lack of communication; the office of sustainability supplies a variety of informative resources and has several social media accounts. Instead, the real issue is that all of these outlets require students to deliberately set aside extra time just to access the information they provide.

And administrators aren’t doing much to help with that.

The university should give the office of sustainability alternate ways of promoting its initiatives that don’t require students to purposefully engage with them, like putting up signs around campus and devoting time at popular events to promote sustainability.

Then again, the current outlook isn’t without hope. Katz is currently working on a module for New Student Orientation, which could translate to an increasingly well-informed student body every year. UCLA is also moving forward with building its own wastewater treatment plant, an initiative that was originally a substantial component of plans to reach the 2020 goal before it was delayed by the City of Los Angeles, according to Katz.

But future plans and past excuses don’t justify present shortcomings – and the environmental consequences of those shortcomings don’t change just because no one knows about them.

New advancements in water conservation might be able to turn things around for UCLA’s progress as a leader in sustainability over the next five years.

But in order to set that example, they need to be equally forthcoming about both their accomplishments and mistakes.

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Payton Kammerer
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