With about 70,000 people and the water needs of a small city, UCLA can take small steps toward conservation during California’s drought that will add up to big savings. Then again, why limit yourself to small steps when you can also take big ones?

In anticipation of the University of California’s recent announcement that all UC campuses will cut their water usage 20 percent per person by 2020, UCLA revamped and released its own Water Action Plan outlining several major initiatives for meeting this goal.

Projects include an ongoing switch to more drought-tolerant landscaping and low-flow plumbing fixtures, and ambitious proposals like using a groundbreaking water filtration system developed by UCLA researchers Yoram Cohen and Panagiotis Christofides that could cut campus water use by 25.5 million gallons per year.

“UCLA and the UC system have been preparing for an anticipated increase in droughts and critically dry years,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer. “UCLA’s conservation efforts have already reduced annual per capita water use by 9 percent since 2000, bringing us halfway to our target and saving more than 70 million gallons each year.”

The new Water Action Plan puts UCLA on track to meet the UC-wide goal of making the campus’s per-capita water use in 2020 a full 20 percent less than the average from 1999-2001. There are challenges: Projections suggest that continued construction and other expansions could result in the campus using close to 30 million gallons more annually by 2020. To counteract that, the campus will have to simultaneously reduce water use by 144 million gallons a year.

In addition to the focus on drought-tolerant plants and low-flow fixtures, UCLA has increased water recycling, installed smart-irrigation systems that respond to the weather and encouraged trayless dining in the dorms to cut back on dishwashing, among other projects. Replacing the grass on the intramural field with artificial turf later this year will save 6.4 million gallons of water per year.

Campus conservation efforts benefit from the fact that UCLA is a living laboratory where student and faculty research projects such as Cohen and Christofides’ water filtration system regularly inform the changes made at the university. Bruins at UCLA like to practice what they teach, and the university’s Grand Challenge project, "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles," unites six dozen faculty and staff from roughly 30 centers and nearly two dozen departments to create a plan for the Los Angeles region to use exclusively renewable energy and local water by 2050 while protecting biodiversity.

Students can also take a class through UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability that matches them with staff and faculty to research and create new programs on campus.

“The perilous effects of climate change are already here,” said Chancellor Gene Block. “By making Los Angeles environmentally sustainable, we’ll really light the path for the rest of the world.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last week, and, as California experiences some of its driest weather on record, UC President Janet Napolitano said the university must contribute more to the preservation of the state’s most precious resource.

“The University of California has long been a leader in conservation efforts,” she said. “This new 2020 goal complements the university’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative and its broader award-winning sustainability efforts. UC is prepared to play a leadership role in response to California's current water crisis by demonstrating water sustainability solutions to the rest of the state.”

Since 2000, the average annual water use per Bruin has gone from more than 17,000 gallons to about 15,500 gallons. Getting that down to 13,700 by 2020 will require big steps by the campus as well as small steps by individuals.

“We will continue to make changes to our facilities that help, but students, staff and faculty can help save water too,” Katz said. “The little things add up when you have 70,000 people on campus.”