Change Agent:
20 Years of Sustainability at UBC

Water marks

Being a large, research-intensive university, we use enough water to fill the equivalent of 1,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools a year. We’re looking forward to shrinking that figure with a water-management plan that will help us conserve, reuse and recycle water more efficiently. Read on to learn more about our vision for a more sustainable water system, how we achieved a 50-per-cent reduction in water consumption in just over a decade, and the groundbreaking research into global water sustainability that’s happening at UBC.

Water ways

In 2011, following some significant gains in water conservation, UBC initiated a Water Action Plan to help guide us toward even greater water sustainability in the coming years. A water audit pinpointed targets for reduction by determining that the largest end uses of water included process cooling and research, washroom facilities, irrigation and showers.

A series of public consultations with students, faculty members, staff, and UBC community residents helped identify five key priorities for the plan: rainwater harvesting; efficient landscape irrigation; reduced water use and wastewater generation; water-use management in building operations; and education and engagement.

UBC reduced its per-capita water consumption by 50% between 2000 and 2011-12.


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Tapping out

As one of North America’s biggest research institutions, it takes a lot of water to quench our thirst — about four billion litres of potable water each year. We’ve taken some significant steps to tighten our taps and the results speak for themselves.

Thanks to several ambitious projects, as of 2016 we have decreased our water use per student by 59 per cent since 2000.

The ECOTrek project, operational between 2001 to 2008, retrofitted 288 academic buildings with energy and water efficiencies, earning it a First Prize in the Canadian Association of University Business Officers’s 2008 Quality and Productivity Awards.

And our UBC Renew initiative has, since 2004, saved 27 million litres of water through retrofits of eligible aging buildings that would otherwise be replaced.

The biggest consumption of water, however, occurs in our research labs. That’s where our Green Labs program comes into play, helping reduce the environmental footprint of our 400+ research laboratories. By engaging a network of Sustainability Coordinators in Labs and providing products, practices, grants and best practices, we are conserving water, discouraging open-loop cooling systems, and supporting projects that implement energy and water savings.

Stormy Weather

With five billion litres of annual rainfall, four watersheds and a natural aquifer underground, the UBC Vancouver campus faces a number of challenges — and opportunities — with regard to stormwater management. It’s been an integral part of campus planning since 1997, and we’re continuing to seek out new ways to maximize water capture and minimize the risk of flooding. As climate change brings us more frequent extreme weather events, our recently completed Integrated Stormwater Management Plan addresses how we will minimize the flow of stormwater outside the UBC boundaries and incorporate water-quality standards for stormwater when it does leave our campus.

The design of Wesbrook Place, a large family neighbourhood located on our South Campus, exemplifies this approach with a synergy of form and function; pedestrianized green streets include waterways fed by runoff from surrounding streets and buildings. These waterways lead to a small lake that supplies water for irrigation and water features. ‘Green’ roofs, rain gardens and sediment control all help to capture, clean and utilize rainfall, rather than send it away through storm sewers.

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Managing Stormwater at UBC’s Vancouver Campus

Managing Stormwater at UBC’s Vancouver Campus

UBC Okanagan’s Integrated Rainwater Management Plan aims to retain 100% of the rainwater within the campus by 2050.

Rain harvest

At UBC’s Okanagan campus, an Integrated Rainwater Management Plan (IRMP) is being developed, with an ambitious goal of retaining 100 per cent of the rainwater within the campus by 2050 — a target set by the campus’s Whole Systems Infrastructure Plan. To meet this goal, the campus is moving away from a traditional system of collection and diversion of rainwater through concrete and piping, and moving toward a system where rainwater is harvested and used to support natural elements. Through the application of low-impact development (LID) techniques to all future projects and development, the plan will help create a more regenerative campus ecology.

The recently completed IRMP identifies measures to collect and filter rainwater to enhance wetlands; infiltrate runoff from buildings and impervious surfaces in the campus core; and implement specific rainwater improvements, placing a priority on LID rainwater-management methods. Additionally, as the Okanagan campus’s main storm system drains to an existing pond, careful analysis has been done to ensure the IRMP measures would mitigate any impacts to the ecology of the pond, which supports the campus landscape and enhances its ecosystem services and biodiversity.

The Pond on UBC Okanagan’s campus. Photo credit: Darren Handschuh

The Pond on UBC Okanagan’s campus.
Photo credit: Darren Handschuh

Water world

With pressure on the earth to sustain a growing global population in the midst of climate change, water security is becoming an increasingly urgent area of study. The work of Mark Johnson, Canada research chair in ecohydrology with UBC’s Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, is addressing this challenge head on. His research into how land use and climate change affects the water and carbon cycles is informing new strategies for sustainable urban and rural landscapes.

Two of Johnson’s current research projects have a global focus. The first is a five-year NSERC-funded project Ecohydrological Controls on Carbon Drainage Fluxes in Natural and Human-Impacted Watersheds begun in April 2014. It is examining how changes to both human-constructed and natural wetlands alter their ability to absorb or release carbon. The Agricultural Water Innovations in the Tropics partnership will test methods to lower agricultural consequences on water resources and help tropical agriculture systems become more resilient to climate change.

Curious how water can be used to create sustainable environments?

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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: The UBC Sustainability Initiative and Campus and Community Planning and the many units, departments, and faculties at UBC that helped contribute invaluable information on sustainability for this story.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, online producer; Cynthia Deng, web developer assistant; Margaret Doyle, digital storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC photographer; Michael Kam, web developer; Adrian Liem, manager, digital communications; Mark Pilon, communication designer; Jamil Rhajiak, digital communications specialist; Laura Stobbe, communication designer; Matt Warburton, manager, graphic design; Aida Viziru, web interaction designer. Content writer — Jessica Werb. Copy editor — David Leidl.

Published: May 2017