In Partnership with 74

California drought spurs LA Unified water conservation efforts

Vanessa Romo | March 26, 2015

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Belmont_FieldAs California considers emergency legislation to solve the drought crisis, LA Unified is working with city and state agencies to reduce water consumption across campuses by ripping out water-sucking grass lawns in place of native plants, swapping outdated toilets for low-flush units and recycling gray water throughout neighboring school communities.

As the largest district in the state, LA Unified consumes annually about 2.5 billion gallons of water — equivalent to the capacity of the Hollywood Reservoir.

“I know that sounds like a lot but you have to remember we’re serving more than 660,000 students everyday,” Christos Chrysiliou, Director of the Architecture and Engineering Services for the district’s Facilities Division, told LA School Report.

“We’ve done a lot of work to bring it down, and we’re doing a lot more,” he said.

Many of the gains the district has made in conserving water over the years are a result of the 2003 school board resolution adopting more environmentally rigorous guidelines for new school construction projects, called Collaborative High Performance Schools or CHPS. All of these developments include a water conservation component.

“As we adopted that, it meant pretty much over 150 of our our new construction projects had to meet those standards, and they are very tough,” Chrysiliou said.

To date, about 80 of the new construction sites have been certified as CHPS campuses and another 40 are waiting to be approved.

While the public often considers a LEED certification to be the ultimate mark of a sustainable building, Chrysiliou says the High Performance schools are about 30 percent more energy efficient than the district’s older campuses. All use reclaimed water to irrigate the landscaping made up of native, drought-tolerant plants. And underground detention systems are built-in to reduce storm water run off.

In addition to those campuses, there are also five LEED certified schools: Sotomayor Learning Academies, Michelle Obama Elementary School, Middle College High School, and the two LEED Silver buildings at Dorsey High School.

Under a state-grant called Drought Response Outreach Program for Schools (DROPS), a handful of schools have launched projects to capture water and process it so it can be put back into the underground water system. The district plans to expand the program to five new schools: Victory Boulevard Elementary, Normandy Avenue Elementary, Western Middle School, Northridge Middle School, and Belvedere Middle School.

Further, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is working with the district in replacing about 1,000 old toilet fixtures with low-flow units and 225 new urinals.

“That’s a lot of savings,” Chrysiliou said.

And what about those expansive green grass lawns, you may wonder?

Chrysiliou’s department is hoping to take advantage of a citywide program that offers to pay residents dig out the grass and plant drought tolerant plants instead. The going rate for a square foot of grass is $3.75.  A price Chrysiliou says, “is a good deal for us.”

Basically, he says, “If it’s not a playing field then we’re thinking about replacing it.”

The district is also piloting new irrigation technologies to reduce over-watering in places that will remain grass-covered. So far, 18 sites have been outfitted with remote shut off irrigation systems.

Read Next