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Following the current: MIT examines water consumption sustainability

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Following the current: MIT examines water consumption sustainability

At the 2019 MIT Commencement address, Michael Bloomberg highlighted the climate crisis as “the challenge of our time.” Climate change is expected to worsen drought and cause Boston, Massachusetts, sea level to rise by 1.5 feet by 2050. While numerous MIT students and researchers are working to ensure access to clean and sustainable sources of drinking water well into the future, MIT is also responding to the urgency of the climate crisis with a close examination of campus sustainability practices, including a recent focus on its own water consumption.
A working group on campus water use, led by the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) and Department of Facilities, is supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and includes representatives of numerous other groups, offices, students, and campus leaders. While the MITOS initiative is focusing on campus water management, MIT student clubs are raising local consciousness around drinking-water issues via research and outreach activities. Through all of these efforts, members of the community aim to help MIT change its water usage practices and become a model for sustainable water use at the university level.
The water subcommittee: providing water leadership to promote institutional change
Gathering campus stakeholders to develop sustainability recommendations is a practiced strategy for the Office of Sustainability. MITOS working groups have previously analyzed environmental issues such as energy use, storm water management, and the sustainability of MIT’s food system, another initiative in which J-WAFS has played a role. The current working group addressing campus water use practices is managed by Steven Lanou, sustainability project manager at MITOS. “Work done in the late 1990s reduced campus water use by an estimated 60 percent,” he explains. “And now, we need to look strategically again at all of our systems” to improve water management in the face of future climate uncertainty.
Beginning in fall 2018, MITOS met with local stakeholders, including the Cambridge Water Department, the MIT Department of Facilities, and the MIT Water Club, to explore how water is used and managed on campus.
The water subcommittee falls underneath the Sustainability Leadership Steering Committee, which was created by, and reports to, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Treasurer, upon which Professor John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering, also sits. The steering committee is charged by the provost and the executive vice president and treasurer of MIT to recommend strategies for campus leadership on sustainability issues. The water subcommittee will bring concrete suggestions for water usage changes to the MIT administration and work to implement them across campus. Professor Lienhard has “been key in helping us shape what a water stewardship program might look like,” according to Lanou.
Other J-WAFS staff are also involved in the subcommittee, as well as leaders from the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), Department of Facilities, MIT Dining, the MIT Investment Management Company, and the Water Club. Based on a thorough review of data related to MIT’s water use, the subcommittee has started to identify the most strategic areas for intervention, and is gearing up now to get additional input this fall and begin to develop recommendations for how MIT can reduce water consumption, mitigate its overall climate impact, and adapt to an uncertain future.
Water has been a focus of discussion and planning for sustainable campus practices for several years already. A MITOS stormwater and land management working group devoted to priority-setting for campus sustainability, which convened in the 2014 academic year, identified MIT’s water footprint as one of several key areas for discussion and intervention. Following the release of the stormwater and land management working group recommendations in 2016, MITOS teamed up with the Office of Campus Planning, the Department of Facilities, and the Office of Environment, Health and Safety to explore stormwater management solutions that improve the health of Cambridge, Massachusetts waterways and ecosystems. Among the outcomes was a draft stormwater management and landscape ecology plan that is focused on enhancing the productivity of the campus’ built and ecological systems in order to capture, absorb, reuse, and treat stormwater. This effort has informed the implementation of advanced stormwater management infrastructure on campus, including the recently completed North Corridor improvements in conjunction with the construction of the MIT.nano building.
In addition, MITOS is leading a research effort with the MIT Center for Global Change Science and Department of Facilities to understand campus risks to flooding during current and future climate conditions. The team is evaluating probabilities and flood depths to a range of scenarios, including intense, short-duration rainfall over campus; 24-hour rainfall over campus/Cambridge from tropical storms or nor’easters; sea-level rise and coastal storm surge of the Charles River; and up-river rainfall that raises the level of the Charles River. To understand MIT’s water consumption and key areas for intervention, this year’s water subcommittee is informed by data gathered by Lanou on the water consumption across campus — in buildings, labs, and landscaping processes — as well as the consumption of water by the MIT community.
An additional dimension of water stewardship to be considered by the subcommittee is the role and impact of bottled-water purchases on campus. The subcommittee has begun to look at data on annual bottled-water consumption to help understand the current trends. Understanding the impacts of single-use disposable bottles on campus is important. “I see so much bottled water consumption on campus,” notes John Lienhard. “It’s costly, energy-intensive, and adds plastic to the environment.” Only 9 percent of all plastics manufactured since 2015 has been recycled, and 12 billion metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills by 2050. Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining and another subcommittee member, has participated in student-led bottled-water reduction efforts on two college campuses, and he hopes to help MIT better understand and address the issue here. Hayes would like to see MIT consider “expanding water refilling stations, exploring the impact and reduction [of] plastic recycling, and increasing campus education on these efforts.” Taking on the challenge of changing campus water consumption habits, and decreasing the associated waste, will hopefully position MIT as a leader in these kinds of sustainability efforts and encourage other campuses to adopt similar policies.
Students taking action
Student groups are also using education around bottled water alternatives to encourage behavior change. Andrew Bouma, a PhD student in John Lienhard’s lab, is investigating local attitudes toward bottled water. His interest in this issue began upon meeting several students who drank mostly bottled water. “It frustrated me that people had this perception that the tap water wasn’t safe,” Bouma explains, “even though Cambridge and Boston have really great water.” He became involved with the MIT Water Club and ran a blind taste test at the 2019 MIT Water Night to evaluate perceptions of tap water, bottled water, and recycled wastewater.
Bouma explained that bottled-water drinkers often cite superior flavor as a motivating factor; however, only four or five of the 70-80 participants correctly identified the different sources, suggesting that the flavor argument holds little water. Many participants also held reservations about water safety. Bouma hopes that the taste test can address these barriers more effectively than sharing statistics. “When people can hold a cup of water in their hands and see it and taste it, it makes people confront their presumptions in a different way,” he explains.
A broader impact
The MIT Water Club, including Bouma, repeated the taste test at the Cambridge River Arts Festival in June to examine public perceptions of public and bottled water. Fewer than 5 percent of the 242 respondents identified all four water sources, approximately the same outcome as would be expected from random guessing. Many participants held concerns about the safety of public water, which the Water Club tried to combat with information about water treatment and testing procedures. Bouma hopes to continue addressing water consumption issues as co-president of the Water Club.
Other student groups are encouraging behavior change around water consumption as well. The MIT Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the GSC Sustainability Subcommittee, with support from the Department of Facilities, funded five water-bottle refilling stations across campus in 2015. These efforts underscore the commitment of MIT students to promoting sustainable water consumption on campus.
A unique “MIT spin” on campus water sustainability
Lanou hopes that MIT will bring its technical strength to bear on water issues by using campus as a living laboratory to test water technologies. For example, Kripa Varanasi, professor of mechanical engineering and a J-WAFS-funded principal investigator, is piloting a water capture project at MIT’s Central Utility Plant that uses electricity to condense fog into liquid water for collection. Varanasi’s lab is able to test the technology in real-world conditions and improve the plant’s water efficiency at the same time. “It’s a great example of MIT being willing to use its facilities to test campus research,” explains Lanou. These technological advancements — many of which are supported by J-WAFS — could support water resilience at MIT and elsewhere.
As the climate crisis brings water scarcity issues to the forefront, understanding and modeling water-use practices will become increasingly critical. With the water subcommittee working to bring recommendations for campus water use to the administration, and MIT students engaging with the broader Cambridge community on bottled water issues, the MIT community is poised to rise to the challenge.

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