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Recycling Water on the East End

Written by WashU alum, Jarea Fang, Class of 2022.

As part of our nation suffers unprecedented drought, other parts are deluged with flood waters. If we learned anything from this unpredictable summer (or generation, really), it’s that water–both in deficit and in excess–can be deadly to all.   

According to National Geographic, to irrigate means to water land or crops by bringing in water from pipes, canals, sprinklers, or other man-made means rather than relying on rainfall alone. The average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30% of which is devoted to outdoor uses. Landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day. Commercial agriculture is an even bigger player in the withdrawal of ground and surface waters, accounting for 42% of the nation’s total freshwater withdrawal back in 2015.  

On our very own Danforth Campus, two-thirds of the landscape is watered by irrigation. The sprinkler heads work especially hard during the summer months, when the fields are the most vibrant. This large-scale underground tank collects a combination of reclaimed surface water and natural ground water for recirculation back into the WashU landscape. It is also equipped with provisions capable of developing into eventual purple-pipe opportunities, such as toilet flushing for future buildings or irrigation for potential new gardens and fields. Both this new cistern, as well as the East End Detention which debuted two years before, are wonderful additions and important investments to the most energy-efficient and sustainability-focused part of Danforth Campus: the East End.  

East End: The Detention & The Cistern 

Since the plans for Danforth Campus were drawn up in 1895 and 1899, the East End’s purpose was to stay green. Its role was to be a smooth transition from WashU’s Brookings Hall to St. Louis’ Forest Park, only a street away. In 2010, the WashU administration announced a historic goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its 1990 level by 2020, allowing for the greenness of the East End to take on a new meaning. This was when dreams of the iconic, artistic, and environmentally-conscious East End Transformation were born.  

Today, this new East End has become a reality, full of LEED certified buildings and large expanses of green space in Tisch Park. A major component included in this green agenda is a new underground water tank called the East End Detention, which started operations in the fall of 2020. The detention, which has approximately a 285,000 gallon capacity, collects, holds, and slowly releases stormwater runoff to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) systems, effectively minimizing risks of floods in our community, both on and off campus. It protects East End’s almost three acres of impervious areas.  

Required and held to high standards by the Metropolitain Sewer District (MSD), the prime entity for managing storm and waste water in the region, the East End detention basin stays empty in order to take in storm water whenever needed. Anyone who spent the summer in St. Louis will recall the intense flash flooding in late July that ultimately caused the partial closure of WashU’s North Campus facilities, among other damages. If not for the detention basin and other flood control provisions in the area, the entire East End would likely have flooded as well.  

Nearly complete, the cistern’s full capacity is approximately 30,000 gallons, which is a whole night of irrigation cycling during the summer season. Even when the tank is half full, the water collected by the cistern–often site water runoff from existing landscape maintenance or rainwater around the East End Garage–is recycled right back onto the fields of Danforth Campus before the irrigation system supplements with new water. Thus, while the detention retains storm water to alleviate the pressure on existing sewer systems, the cistern recirculates and recycles water in order to alleviate pressure on the existing irrigation system.  

“Over the next few weeks, the cistern will be placed into full operation for the remainder of the irrigation season,” shared Ed Barry, director of utility operations. “We anticipate having preliminary data during this period to verify performance of the system and what we can expect during next summer’s full irrigation cycle.” 

Combating Water Scarcity 

The biggest myth about water, perhaps, is that it is an endless resource. However, only 2.5% of Earth’s water is fresh water, and only 1.2% of that water is surface water, which serves most of life’s needs. According to the US Department of the Interior (USGS), most of that water is locked up in ice, with 20.9% more in lakes and .49% in rivers. Freshwater is not distributed evenly across the globe, or even the country. Despite water being essential to survival, many marginalized communities are disproportionately denied that right, with climate change exacerbating the challenges.  

Even in a seemingly water-rich region like the Midwest, it is essential to invest in infrastructure that minimizes stormwater impacts and uses water judiciously. Institutions like WashU must lead the way as their footprint can either create greater flood risk and waste water or responsibly contribute to the green infrastructure network in the region. 

Each development project at WashU provides the opportunity to embrace new technology and expand the thinking around what is possible. Cassie Hage, assistant director of the Office of Sustainability, celebrates the educational aspects of projects like this: “I love taking groups of elementary school kids, alumni, or WashU students around the East End and being able to point out all of these features, many of which are out-of-site but so interesting to learn about.”  

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