By Michael Timmermans
Water is largely taken for granted in this part of the world.
As society is gradually becoming more aware of the issue of water sustainability, growing numbers of people, organizations and institutions like Algonquin are starting to focus on how they use water.
Measures to raise the college’s green profile have been evident in recent years. Environmentally sustainable features are part of recent additions and facility improvements made on campus such as the ACCE complex and the year-and-a-half old Student Commons.
Think of how you interact with water during the course of a typical day. The shower and coffee that start the day. Washing dishes, using the toilet, staying hydrated. It all involves water. So what is being done to ensure better water management on campus?
Let’s dive in.
Ottawa’s tap water is sourced from the Ottawa River. Consumption also includes waste water. What goes down the toilet, out of a building’s heating and cooling systems and water used in industrial operations goes back into the aquifer—the natural ecosystem of ground water, rivers and other bodies of water, sometimes called the watershed—and ends up back in the original water source. A water source is lost forever if it becomes too polluted or is consumed dry.
Brent Brownlee, acting director of Ancillary Services at Algonquin, sees bottled water as a choice, part of a balanced approach.
He tries to balance sustainability and economic responsibility. Brownlee has worked at the college since 2001. His department oversees revenue-generating operations including retail connections such as the technology and book stores, parking operations, food services and vending machines. The most obvious water product under his purview may be bottled water.
“The supply of water is high right now,” said Brownlee. “It will be interesting to see if that remains the same in the future and if bottled water may become a way to control the consumption of water.”
At least a dozen Canadian post-secondary campuses have already implemented some form of water bottle ban, including the University of Ottawa. Brownlee is concerned banning bottled water may force students to make less healthy beverage choices, such as pop or other sugary drinks.
“Food services is there to offer products that students want,” said Brownlee. “Bottled water fits into those options.”
“Are we banning a choice for consumers?” he asked.
Demand for fountain beverages has decreased over Brownlee’s time at the college, while the number of bottles purchased has increased. He feels students enjoy the convenience of the bottle while navigating their busy lives on campus.
“How do we deliver water safely?” he wonders. “Tap water is perfectly good to drink, so there is a need to understand why consumers value the bottle.”
Fourteen thousand food and drink transactions a day are made at Food and Beverage Operations facilities at Woodroffe campus alone, according to Brownlee.
“Environmental sustainability is a key focus—top of mind” within food services, he said.
He believes that students have an opportunity to engage with the college’s food and beverage suppliers to influence change such as new products and environmentally-friendly packaging.
“Students can be powerful influencers,” said Brownlee.
A water crusader
“We need water for life,” said Lisa Shaw-Verhoek. “I believe that water is a human right and as a professor in the social service worker program I have a responsibility to assist my students to explore this and empower them to take action about it in their communities.”
Employed the college since 1987, Shaw-Verhoek is a professor in the SSW program at the Perth Campus. She has taken matters into her own hands and gotten involved with water conservation. Shaw-Verhoek incorporates the concept of water sustainability at the course level in the program.
In the Social Welfare: Local/Global course, “the foundation is sustainability and each of the topics we cover is viewed through that lens,” Shaw-Verhoek said.
“The final assessment for the course requires students to imagine that they are a SSW in their home community and they are designing and implementing a water education/awareness program. They have a budget and they use their creativity and commitment to this important issue to design an action plan,” she said.
Raised in rural Renfrew County, Shaw-Verhoek’s family was committed to environmental issues. During her tenure at Algonquin, she was involved in taking students to El Salvador to work on projects that brought potable water to communities and awareness of farming and industrial practices which leached chemical toxins into the watershed and made people sick. She considers herself fortunate that she has access to clean, safe drinking water.
“We take water for granted [in Canada] by just turning on the tap and flushing the toilet,” said Shaw-Verhoek.
“We draw our water from a well and paid $8,000 for a system to ensure that our water is safe and healthy,” she said
“I am extremely fortunate to have the resources to buy such a system. Everyone has the right to potable water and everyone has a responsibility to protect this resource.”
At Algonquin’s Perth campus, custodians Debbie Creighton and Ken Elsworth take that protection seriously.
“We had a problem when we moved into the new campus building with the urinals running all the time,” said Shaw-Verhoek. “[Creighton and Elsworth] kept reporting the issue to ensure that something was done about it.”
The campus parking lot is not paved.
“Pavement does not allow water to go back into the ground,” said Shaw-Verhoek.
Water refill stations are available so students can fill a reusable container rather than buying bottled water.
“This was a request from faculty and students when we were designing our building,” Shaw-Verhoek said.
Words or actions?
Algonquin’s physical resources is undertaking a few key sustainability initiatives, namely partnerships with service providers delivering sustainable practices. These partnerships are referred to energy services contracts or ESCOs.
“We intend to develop a college-wide water strategy in the winter/spring of 2014,” said Phillip Rouble, associate director of Facilities Planning and Sustainability.
“This strategy will include sustainable guiding principles related to water use and conservation, storm water management and harvesting and waste water management.”
To date, an ESCO exists between Algonquin and Direct Energy on a $6 million energy-savings project designed to deliver $600,000 a year in energy savings over a 10-year period.
Another contract, dubbed ESCO2, was recently forged with Siemens Building Performance and Sustainability teams.
According to Siemens’ Sarah Dehler, who is also Algonquin’s sustainability coordinator, ESCO2 focuses more on water sustainability and the college’s draw on municipal water. The plan on Woodroffe campus has seen low-flow faucets installed across campus, six-litre toilets swapped out for three-litre models and water-saving faucets installed in residence.
“The college is already experiencing significant water use reductions,” she said.
“Less money spent on wasted resources means more money available to maintain facilities and position the College for sustainable growth. As we decrease our demand on the City of Ottawa’s potable water delivery system, we are demonstrating good corporate responsibility.”
Dehler cited how water is used in landscaping around the school grounds as an example of the college’s water stewardship. She referenced the ACCE building, where water is reused in toilets and with grass irrigation on the green roof.
ESCO2 covers existing infrastructure, with a strategy in place for any future development. Citing technical reasons, Dehler said the project focuses exclusively on Woodroffe campus, but cultural changes are being fostered at all campuses, among faculty and students.
Algonquin has launched the Sustainable Algonquin website algonquincollege.com/sustainability and the Sustainable Algonquin Steering Committee has been formed.
According to the site, the SASC “represents all areas of the College. Its members are also excellent contacts for Algonquin College community members ready to take action in moving the College forward on its sustainability journey.”
Members of the SASC contacted by the Times declined to be interviewed for this article.
Where do students fit in?
“The opportunities for students to get involved and make an impact is really limitless,” said Dehler. “The best starting point is to get to know the issues, find the issues that speak to you and then start to take action.”
For students and others on campus, it comes down to the personal choices, habits and consumer purchases made in daily life and balancing those choices, habits and purchases.
“An application for a sustainability club has recently been submitted at the Perth Campus and students will have an opportunity to prioritize their concerns,” said Shaw-Verhoek, who is also organizing the fifth annual Sustainability Fair in March 2014.
“This is a good opportunity for the students to connect with people who are committed to water as a resource,” she said.
“Algonquin students have demonstrated that they can get the word out on important global issues, as we saw last year with the Spread the Net campaign,” said Dehler.
“Water security is a hugely important issue. Students can look to the work of Canadians such as Maude Barlow, David Suzuki or Guy Laliberté as interesting examples of raising awareness on this important issue,” she said.