How To Do Your Part During One of California’s Worst Droughts Yet

Recycled water sign at SJSU

San José State uses recycled water as part of its irrigation system. Photo: David Schmitz

California is in the middle of a severe drought that keeps getting worse.

Last month, the Santa Clara Valley Water district board declared a water shortage emergency, urging the community to conserve water by 15 percent compared to 2019 levels. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 counties.

Editor’s note: On July 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the drought emergency to 50 counties and asked all Californians to cut water usage by 15 percent compared to 2020 levels.

The drought is accelerating faster than those of previous years, which can cause more wildfires that spread faster and quickly decimate wildlife habitats, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Climate change may be one of the reasons this drought arrived so soon after the last one, which lasted from 2011 to 2017, said Katherine Cushing, professor of environmental studies at San José State, in a recent ABC News report.

“It’s not just about people conserving water in their homes,” she said in the report. “It’s also about agencies thinking strategically about how to amplify the use of non-conventional water sources like recycled water.”

Unfortunately, she added, more frequent and more severe droughts could be our “new normal.”

Three things you can do, starting today

Katherine Cushing, professor of environmental studies at San José State

Katherine Cushing, professor of environmental studies at San José State. Photo: David Schmitz

To get through this emergency — and help address the bigger, long-term issue of water conservation — we all need to pitch in. Cushing provided three ways we can join the collective effort to conserve our state’s water. Here’s how you can help:

1. Make changes — both big and small — to your everyday habits.

There are lots of easy things to do: take shorter showers, turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth, only run the dishwasher when full. And those things make a difference, Cushing said.

Or, “the average person flushes the toilet five to seven times per day,” she explained. “If you could reduce that to four to six times, that’s a big improvement.”

When it comes to making bigger, more lasting changes, Cushing advises looking outside.

About half of the water the average household uses is for watering outdoors, Cushing pointed out. She suggested collecting rainwater to use for watering your yard.

If you have a spare $200, you could also turn your used laundry water into an irrigation system. Installing a laundry-to-landscape system can be done without a permit and just requires a plumber to route the used water to your outdoor plants. (Note: If you live in Santa Clara County, you could qualify for a rebate if you install this system.)

Or, you might reevaluate your landscaping altogether.

“Even if we’re not in a drought, the average rainfall for San Jose is 17 inches a year. That doesn’t really go with having a huge green lawn in your front or back yard.

“A lot of the water providers and government agencies are offering incentives to homeowners to convert their lawns to drought-tolerant or native landscaping. And that kind of landscaping is beautiful; it’s designed by nature to thrive in this area. It doesn’t need any water in the summer.”

2. Brace yourself for restriction mandates and follow them.

Restrictions are a crucial part of addressing the water shortage crisis. The state is trying to avoid overtaxing its groundwater supply, Cushing explained, because that can cause subsidence, which is gradual sinking or caving of the landscape. That can impact the structural integrity of buildings, causing salt water to infiltrate groundwater and increase flood risk, she noted.

Restrictions vary by county, and most include limits on watering outdoor landscape. Take a look at restrictions and advisements in your area.

In the face of extreme drought, “you have major crop or pasture losses, so there are significant impacts to the agricultural industry,” Cushing explained. “This drought rivals the dryness we saw in the 1970s, during a very, very severe drought for California. This could be a really bad one, and we don’t know how long it will last.”

3. Look out for future policy and infrastructure changes.

While there are natural fluctuations in precipitation levels, the fact that this drought arrived less than five years after the state’s longest dry spell, which started in 2011 and ended in 2017, is concerning.

“It’s an impact of climate change,” she said. “We’re entering a time where more severe droughts, floods and wildfires are going to occur more frequently, and there’s a higher risk that they’ll be more severe.”

The state needs to be looking for ways to introduce recycled water into its agriculture systems, Cushing said. Construction codes also need to change, so water is used more than once where possible.

“We need to make water conservation and water use a priority,” she added. “It’s an exciting time to think about what we can do, and since we’re in California, in Silicon Valley, we’re in the hotbed of innovation. We are poised to be leaders in this area.”

Learn more about how SJSU’s Office of Sustainability is working to use water more efficiently.

SJSU Launches Inaugural Sustainability Faculty Cohort

Sustainability Faculty Cohort.

Ten SJSU faculty have been selected for the Sustainability Faculty Cohort: top row, l-r: Lecturer Roni Abusaad; Lecturer Sung Jay Ou; Assistant Professor Tianqin Shi; Assistant Professor Faranak Memarzadeh; second row l-r: Associate Professor Edith Kinney; Associate Professor Minghui Diao; Lecturer A. William Musgrave; Lecturer Thomas Shirley; bottom row l-r: Lecturer Igor Tyukhov; and Associate Professor John Delacruz. Image courtesy of the Office of Sustainability.

San José State Justice Studies Lecturer Roni Abusaad is excited to incorporate a module on the environment and human rights law as part of his Human Rights and Justice course this fall.

“This is an evolving area of human rights law and a great opportunity for students to understand the interconnectivity of all rights and connect theory to current issues like climate change,” Abusaad said at a May 24 faculty presentation.

Abusaad is one of 10 SJSU faculty members who are prepared to lead the way in the university’s inaugural Sustainability Faculty Cohort, who will include sustainability modules into their curriculum this fall. The cohort complements existing extracurricular and co-curricular initiatives offered through the Office of Sustainability, the Campus Community Garden and the Environmental Resource Center and offers a chance for faculty to become campus leaders in sustainability education.

The Center for Faculty Development, the Office of Sustainability and CommUniverCity hosted an informational workshop for SJSU faculty this spring to offer information about sustainability and how they could apply for a stipend to develop a sustainability module for their courses.

“There are many different definitions of sustainability,” said SJSU Professor of Geology and Science Education Ellen Metzger, who helped organize the initiative. “In our workshop, we defined it in terms of the three ‘e’s: economy, equity and environment. We used those three pillars to invite faculty to envision where their discipline might connect to one of the themes of sustainability.”

The workshop also highlighted the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs provide a “global blueprint for dignity, peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future” and supply a framework for interdisciplinary teaching and learning about sustainability. Earlier this year, the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, which measure worldwide progress around SDGS, ranked SJSU in the top 30 universities among U.S. universities and in the top 500 internationally.

While students have many opportunities to learn about sustainability on and off campus, the faculty cohort ensures that Spartans can learn discipline-specific applications in areas such as hospitality and tourism management, business development, mechanical engineering and more.

“Higher education has a transformative influence on society, and if we want to empower students to become agents of change, it’s going to require us rethinking how we do things,” said Metzger.

“Universities, both in terms of teaching and research, are really well-poised to lead this reframing. What do we want the future to look like? If we want to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, we must accept that nothing will change unless education changes.”

The desire to become campus sustainability leaders is evident at SJSU. More faculty applied to participate in the inaugural cohort than could be accommodated this fall. Metzger said that the applications demonstrated a hunger to emphasize sustainability in all disciplines — great news, considering that the Office of Sustainability hopes to continue the cohort program indefinitely.

The Campus Community Garden is just one of the many sustainability initiatives at SJSU. Photo by David Schmitz.

“Our campus has made amazing progress to make our facilities sustainable, from incorporating recycled water in all of our non-potable uses to installing solar panels on every suitable surface. I think this initiative builds on that foundation,” said Senior Utility and Sustainability Analyst Debbie Andres, ’07 Chemical Engineering.

Participating faculty will receive a $500 professional development grant courtesy of PepsiCo and are encouraged to share their experiences with other faculty at future Center for Faculty Development workshops.

“We have always offered amazing courses in every college that focus on sustainability, showing that it can and should be incorporated into every department,” continued Andres. “But we have never had a formal cohort dedicated to curriculum development. We saw how successful and well-attended our workshop was and we plan on this being the start of annual workshops.”

“Together faculty can help students develop the skills, knowledge and outlooks that will help them see themselves as change agents and offer opportunities to make a difference,” added Metzger.

Learn more about SJSU’s sustainability initiatives.

A Gold Star for Sustainability, and a How-to Series for Viewers at Home

Water fountain with a recycled water sign next to it.

Water fountain on El Paseo De César E. Chávez. Photo: David Schmitz.

Improving sustainability demands more than a string of individual actions. It requires partnerships.

That’s why the SJSU Office of Sustainability is working with a long list of campus partners to continue making the campus cleaner and greener.

Its achievements were rewarded last March when SJSU received a Gold rating from STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System. STARS is a “transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance,” awarded San José State its level Gold ranking this spring, with a score of 71.91.

The Gold ranking is not merely a measure of good recycling or energy-efficient buildings but evaluates numerous efforts: academics, campus and public engagement, facilities, transportation, waste management, and energy and greenhouse gas emissions. The Gold ranking recognizes not only the buildings, but what’s happening inside and outside them–the web of partnerships geared toward improving sustainability on campus.

Senior Utilities and Sustainability Analyst Debbie Andres said that the challenge of a three-year campus-wide audit was important in helping to infuse sustainability practices throughout campus. “In 2016, we were the first CSU to get the Gold ranking,” she said. “That was really exciting.”

This summer, together with a list of partners, the Office of Sustainability is hosting a Summer Workshop Series, short videos offering tips on using public transportation, reducing food waste–even “conscious closet cleaning.”

The first offering in the video series, in partnership with the Women’s Wellness Center, was Conscious Closet Cleaning Part 1. Soozy Zerbe, zero waste student intern at the Office of Sustainability, explained much more than shared ideas about how to reduce unwanted clothing. Zerbe said the global fashion industry has a higher carbon impact than airlines or shipping. Student president and co-founder of the Women and Wellness Club Guadalupe Moreno said in the video that in addition to reducing waste, “cleaning out your closet is great for your well-being and a method of self-care.” The video contains a tidy closetful of highly informed data about how much clothing we unthinkingly send to the landfill. “Cluttering takes up space, and decluttering can make you feel calm and relaxed,” Moreno said.

Andres said the idea for the topic originated with Moreno, who noticed how often students are posting questions and sharing information via videos on sites like Instagram. The summer video series evolved from an initiative dreamed up by students into a broader way to help the campus community think about sustainability at a time when regular modes of outreach can’t happen.

“It’s on YouTube, so people can access these videos any time. I thought there was so much information we could share out there.” Students pay attention to and learn through media like Instagram videos, Andres said—and all the more so now, when they aren’t crossing campus or dropping in the sustainability office, which they have always done frequently in the past.

The workshop series, Andres said, was formed during events earlier this summer, with the goal of offering people at home a set of “how-to” guides in an easy to watch format. “For me, and for my office, sustainability isn’t just about environmental sustainability. It’s about people. If we’re not protecting people on the planet, we’re not protecting the planet.”

More tips on keeping sustainability in mind in the home and office will appear in three more videos throughout July. Videos coming in August include gardening at home in small containers (with AS Community Garden), public transportation tips (with AS Transportation Solutions), and cooking tips when shifting to a plant-based diet, with the Spartan Veg Club. Spartan Eats partnered on a video about how to reduce food waste when on campus, and how SJSU incorporates sustainability in food options. The last video in September, made with SJSU’s Spartan Food Pantry and SJSU Cares, will discuss how to apply for Cal Fresh benefits, and how to access the Spartan Food Pantry and other basic needs resources on campus.

“It just started morphing into ‘What else would students be interested in learning about?’ It was a team effort with my students to reach out to organizations that were doing awesome things that tied in with sustainability.”

Follow @sjsugreencampus on Twitter to get the full schedule of videos and their release dates.

Earth Month 2020 Goes Online

Student on the tower lawn doing a yoga pose.

Yoga on the Tower Lawn, one of many resource fair activities for Earth Week 2019. Photo by David Schmitz.

Fifty years ago, on April 22, Gaylord Nelson created history by choosing to commemorate the legacy of the only home we know, Earth.

Affected by the devastating oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969, the former U.S. Senator and Wisconsin governor led a grassroots movement with the hope that the day would inspire people to listen to the environment and collectively share the responsibilities that humans owe to the planet.

The founder of Earth Day, Nelson, ’39 Political Science, was an SJSU alumnus. Despite COVID-19 derailing full-scale campus events and activities, San Jose State remains committed to Nelson’s story.

This year, Earth Month has moved online. A good benefit to having an online celebration such as this, is “that not many people are driving, and that’s way less air pollution already,” said Debbie Andres, ’07 Chemical Engineering, SJSU senior utilities and sustainability analyst.

This April, the SJSU Office of Sustainability is running a robust social media campaign, the Earth Day Eco Challenge, in collaboration with campus Environmental Resource Center (ERC) and Cesar Chavez Community Action Center (CCCAC). In addition, there are a host of exciting educational events and activities in the form of virtual teach-ins, reading assignments, workshops, green career panels, and discussions, all of which will offer an opportunity for students to join in the environmental conversations.

Earth Day was founded on the spirit of teach-in—an activity Nelson designed to educate people about the environment. According to Katherine Cushing, professor of environmental studies, “there are many sources out there that discuss possible linkages between large scale environmental issues, such as climate change, air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Earth Day assignment, “COVID-19, Climate Change, and the Environment,” that Cushing built for her students will help put many different factors surrounding these issues in perspective.

Cushing has been spearheading the effort to provide the faculty with resources for incorporating a sustainability component in their courses this month. Six different assignments are available that are applicable to majors from a wide range of academic disciplines, ranging from business to biology.

A plaque in front of a tree which says planted in honor of Gaylord Nelson.

Every year, students plant a tree on campus. Photo by David Schmitz.

April Events:

Menstruation, Stigma, Zero Waste Period

Tune into this pre-recorded event posted on both the Sustainability Office’s and Gender Equity Center’s YouTube channel. Get to know about the taboos, misconceptions, and sustainable methods for a greener world. This event is brought to you by the Gender Equity Center and the Office of Sustainability. All genders welcome.

April 16: Being the Change: Book discussion

Noon–1 p.m.

This one-hour discussion on climate change will run with Eugene Cordero, SJSU meteorology and climate change professor. The group will be reviewing Chapters 1-6 of Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed. Register to attend Being the Change.

April 21 and 23: Sustainable Designs and Buildings on the SJSU Campus

April 21: 9–10: 15 a.m. and 1:30–2:45 p.m.
April 23: 9–10:15 a.m. and 1:30–2:45 p.m.

Join Art History Professor Molly Hankwitz and her students as they present a series of brief presentations on sustainable design materials and resources on the SJSU campus. Featured buildings include the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, the Student Recreation and Aquatic Center, and the Diaz Campion Student Union. Original posters designed by students will also be previewed in honor of Earth Day. Register in advance for this meeting.

April 22: The Climate Reality Project

12 p.m

The climate crisis is already affecting ecosystems and communities across the globe, but it is not too late to take action. This climate reality presentation will show you how. The presentation is non-partisan, from the perspective of science. The presentation is broken into three parts—”Must We Change,” “Can We Change” and “Will We Change.” Engage with Emeritus Professor and Director of Sbona Honors Program & Thompson Global Internship Program Bill DeVincenzi and ask any questions you may have. Register for The Climate Crisis: What you need to know.

April 29: Green Career Panel

Noon–2 p.m.

The Green Career Panel will be hosted in partnership with the Career Center, followed by networking opportunities. Learn from and engage with panelists from the California Water Efficiency Partnership, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, The City of San Jose, Rising Sun Power. Register for SJSU Green Career Panel Registration.

April 30:

Participate in the SJSU Earth Month Instagram Giveaway! Learn more at @sjsugreencampus via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Learn more about the university’s sustainability practices by reviewing the 2017-2020 SJSU Sustainability Report.