JUST IN: LAUSD remains a huge water waster as state conservation efforts continue to slip
Mike Szymanski | October 5, 2016
As the state reported today that Californians’ conservation efforts are slacking off, millions of gallons of water are still being wasted each year by LA Unified because of unnecessary flushing of the water fountains, a report revealed Tuesday.
Plans to end the practice won’t take place until the end of the 2017-18 school year, but board members expressed the need for higher urgency at a committee meeting Tuesday night and planned to notify the superintendent immediately.
“We have been spending a fortune flushing entire campuses when theoretically only 20 percent needed to be flushed at all,” said board member Monica Ratliff at the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee she runs. “That’s a lot of wasted water.”
The facilities division has spent $5 million of a $20 million program to upgrade and fix the 42,814 water fountains throughout LA Unified. The plan has also included installing bottle-filling stations at a cost of $4,135 each, which a few of the school board members seemed to think was too costly for the district, especially for the plans to include one or two at every school site.
“Couldn’t we teach the students to just tilt the bottle to fill it up?” asked Ratliff when hearing the cost of each new bubbler.
The water concerns come not only as the district is facing severe budget shortfalls in the near future but also as California officials noticed a severe drop in water saving measures over the past few months. Californians saved less than 18 percent in August, according to the state Water Resources Control Board, and the state is at a “yellow alert” status and is still in drought status.
Flushing the water fountains every day at LA Unified schools is being done out of an abundance of caution because of lead found in about 10 percent of them. Lead can affect the brain and nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.
“The district has been overly cautious when it comes to lead in the water, so we do more than what the environmental regulations suggest,” said Mark Hovatter, the district’s chief facilities officer. “But we do want to end the practice as soon as possible.”
If one fountain at any school registers any lead in the first 30 seconds, then all the faucets in the school must be run for at least 30 seconds every day. That’s 9,500 gallons of water a day, or nearly 2.5 million gallons a year going down the drain, most of it unnecessarily.
“We took the ultra-conservative approach that if one fountain needed flushing we flush the whole campus,” Hovatter explained. “When we first started doing it we didn’t know a lot about lead in the water and wanted to be fully safe and fully educated.”
In fact, the nation’s second-largest school district was far ahead of national standards. LA Unified started the flushing in 1988, according to Robert Laughton, the director of the district’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety. That was long before federal warnings of lead in 1991, state legislation in 2009 and federal laws in 2011. Now fountains that show any lead levels are being replaced or taken out altogether.
“We all agree flushing is bad for a variety of reasons,” Hovatter said.
Ratliff pointed out, “At a meeting last week the superintendent said, ‘Please, please stop doing resolutions’ and what you’re telling me is that it sounds like this calls for a resolution. We have the power to change our policy. It sounds to me that what you’re saying is that we could identify the fountains that need to be flushed and do not need to flush the entire campus. I will send that along to the superintendent that we do that.”
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Already 11 percent of the school sites, or 113 schools, have been exempted from the daily flushing of the fountains, and schools continue to be added to the list. The district has surveyed 894 schools (89 percent of all school sites), completed sampling of 300 school sites (about 30 percent) and become better at water flushing compliance throughout the district, Hovatter said.
Among the myths, Laughton said, is that newer schools have cleaner water. That ended up not being true, and in their sampling, the district found an elementary school built in 1913 with 100 percent of the faucets without lead levels, while a middle school built in 1969 had only 65 percent deemed safe, while a high school built in 2009 had only 44 faucets deemed safe.
“Are you telling me, and I hesitate to ask, that there’s a school built in 1913 out there that is 100 percent safe and we are flushing the entire school every day anyway?” Ratliff asked.
Yes, for now, until that school gets added to the exemption list, Laughton said. But they are working to add as many schools as possible to the list and as fast as possible.
“Somewhere along the way it became very uncool to drink water, and we take some of that responsibility upon ourselves,” Hovatter said. The fountains were put in sunny areas where the water became hot, or at the end of water lines where the water was stale. Some fountains weren’t cleaned regularly. Other fountains have filters that weren’t cleaned.
Melinda Rho, LA Department of Water and Power manager of regulatory affairs and consumer protection, spoke to the committee and explained how the water in Los Angeles was safe and among the best in the nation. She said it has been unnecessary to filter the water and that it gives the impression that drinking out of an unfiltered fountain is bad.
Hovatter said the district will eventually phase out fountains with filters, and that will cut down on maintenance.
Cutting back on flushing will also save an average of 500 hours a day or nearly 130,000 hours a year of custodial and administrative staffing “for them to focus on greater needs at the school sites,” Hovatter said.
The district is trying a pilot of getting students to carry water in reusable bottles that can be filled at a filling station. Mathew Medrano, a teacher at the Green Design School at Diego Rivera Learning Complex, brought half a dozen students to talk about the success of the program after it had been in place only a few months. The students took a survey and found that most students would pay about $5 for a reusable bottle with their school logo, then found a place to get them for $2.97 each. The profit was going to buy another bottle filling station to add to each of three floors of their school.
“We found that fewer students are buying water and using disposable bottles that contribute to the landfills,” Medrano said. “Anecdotally, people say that the water tastes like it’s from Arrowhead or Niagara, but it’s the same water as the other fountains on campus. It is definitely making drinking water cool again.”
Hovatter said he needs to have a staff of 42 people (he has 25 now and is looking for a few good plumbers). He said his goal is to include one or two of the bottle filling stations at every school, but it would require more money from the school board.
“I have a concern that it costs $4,000 per machine when they could just as easily tilt their bottles to fill them up,” Ratliff said.
Hovatter said that they figured out that there is a lot of water that gets lost when it drips off a child’s chin while slurping from a bubbler. That’s a loss of 7 million gallons of water a year for every fountain at LA Unified that the bottle filler stations would save.
“Any way we do it,” summed up board member Ref Rodriguez, “we need to figure out a way for kids to drink more water again.”
The board members asked for another report from Hovatter about the plans for the remaining water fountain funding and approximate costs.