Cal Poly Exceeds State’s Order for 25 Percent Water Reduction

March 18, 2016

Contact: Dennis Elliot

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly surpassed Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for a 25 percent reduction in water use by 2016. 

“I am very pleased to report that Cal Poly achieved a reduction in total water use of 31 percent, exceeding both the California State University system’s original 10 percent target and the governor’s subsequent 25 percent goal,” said Dennis Elliot, Cal Poly’s director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability. 

Elliot attributed the savings to Cal Poly’s 2015 Drought Response Plan, a collaborative effort between Facilities, Housing, Associated Students Inc., Campus Dining, and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Services. 

“The commitment and innovation demonstrated by every water-using entity on campus was critical to the plan’s success, and President Jeffrey D. Armstrong encouraged the team to strive for the deepest reductions possible,” Elliot said. 

Water-saving efforts already under way to achieve the CSU’s target were ratcheted up last year in the wake of the governor’s order to increase the state’s reduction goal to 25 percent of potable, or drinkable, water by February 2016. This was on top of a 2014 policy of the California State University trustees board to trim 10 percent of personal water use by 2016 and 20 percent by 2020 in all 23 CSU campuses. 

The Drought Planning Team applied the new goal to all water sources.  Compared to a 2013 baseline, Cal Poly is saving more than 430 acre-feet of water per year or 140 million gallons, Elliot said. Achieving those savings required a broad portfolio of retrofit projects and operational changes, totaling $421,000; those project costs will be repaid in just over a year by the savings in water usage. 

Water Sources and Demand
Since 1961, Cal Poly has gotten its water from Whale Rock Reservoir, a 38,967 acre-foot reservoir near Cayucos that also supplies the other two owners of reservoir water, the city of San Luis Obispo and the nearby California Men’s Colony. In addition, the university pumps groundwater from six wells in the Chorro Valley and Stenner Creek watersheds. 

Cal Poly pays San Luis Obispo for pumping water from Whale Rock to campus as well as the costs of treating the water at the city’s Stenner Creek Road facility. The three partners share operational and maintenance costs of Whale Rock reservoir and its related infrastructure. These costs drop with reduced demand for water. 

As of March 1, Whale Rock contained 13,826 acre-feet of water, or just over a third of capacity. Cal Poly’s share of water there was 6,433 acre-feet — enough to last more than six years at current demand. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. 

Agricultural uses typically account for about half of Cal Poly’s total water demand, with another quarter each for landscape and sports fields and campus buildings. 

Water Savings: New Equipment and Renewed Diligence
In 2013, the university used 1,408 acre-feet of water: 1,106 acre-feet from Whale Rock and 302 acre-feet of groundwater. In 2015, the university cut its total demand by 30.8 percent to 974 acre-feet: 858 from Whale Rock Reservoir and 117 from well water. Those are reductions of 22.5 and 61.4 percent, respectively. 

Elliot said the reduction in treated water was the result of numerous low-flow plumbing retrofits — 1,000 water-saving faucets and 300 low-flow shower heads —installed in student housing and other campus buildings. 

Demand for potable water used for landscaping fell 31 percent, from 269 acre-feet in 2013 to 186 acre-feet in 2015. This was achieved by removing more than 13 of the 48 acres of irrigated lawn across campus, watering Sports Complex fields less, and implementing a wireless irrigation control system to update watering schedules daily based on weather conditions. 

Agricultural water use dropped by 38 percent — including a 24 percent reduction in the amount of untreated Whale Rock water used. The university’s agricultural operations — including orchards and row crops, dairy cows, and poultry and hog units — also used 61 percent less well water from the two watersheds, providing critical relief to the regional groundwater basin. 

Kevin Piper, director of Cal Poly’s agricultural operations, credited the savings to a team effort. “It’s really been equipment upgrades, very close monitoring, and really getting people to think about the need to irrigate or not,” he said. “We left it up to the individuals in the different departments as to what they needed to do, because we didn’t want them to compromise their programs or the yields of their crops.”

Equipment upgrades include the installation of variable frequency drives on pumps to better regulate water flow and pressure, drip and micro-emitters that deliver water directly to plants, and high-performance nozzles on spray irrigation systems that improve watering uniformity. 

Under the drought plan, which received a Best Practice Award at the 2015 California Higher Education Sustainability Conference, the campus achieved significant reductions in nearly every category of water use. 

More Online
To download Cal Poly’s award-winning Drought Response Plan, visit

To download a map of the campus turf reduction map, visit

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