Follow Our Lead

March 2018

By Mary Ellen Collins 

Zoos and Aquariums Model Responsible Water Use           

“Turn off the faucet—you’re wasting water!”

While you may be saying or hearing that in your own home, similar comments are also echoing through Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities across the country.

The increasing focus on water conservation among AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums has resulted in a wide array of strategies—large and small—to reduce the cost and consumption of this precious resource. And contrary to past behavior, officials are now much more open about their efforts.

“Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t say how much water they used,” said Bob Wengel, vice president, facilities at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill. “At one of my first AZA meetings, facilities people said they had to ask their directors if they could talk about it. It took guys like me to say, ‘What the hell are we hiding?  If we don’t know what everyone’s doing, we can’t help each other.’”

With a nod to World Water Day on 22 March, several facilities share some of their methods of saving water and money while also improving animal welfare, reducing stress on municipal systems, and encouraging visitors to join the conservation bandwagon.

Let it Rain

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, the city’s largest water user in 2005, has reduced its water usage by 80 percent since then. The centerpiece of their conservation efforts was the building of a 400,000-gallon underground cistern that captures rainwater.

“We collect it, filter it, and use it for things like topping off exhibits for sea lions, polar bears and penguins,” said Mark Fisher, vice president, facilities, planning and sustainability.    “The water is actually cleaner than city water because we don’t have to filter out chlorine, chloride and arsenic. We also don’t have to expend energy in the summer to cool the water down for the exhibits because the water in the buried tank is cooler than the city water.”

Heavy rains have long resulted in billions of gallons of sewage flowing from the city’s aging sewer system into the highly polluted Cincinnati River. But the Zoo’s single cistern keeps 15 million gallons of rainwater out of the city’s sewer system every year.

“We’re saving money because we don’t have to buy water from the city; we’re keeping water out of the sewers and people’s basements; and we’re having a positive environmental impact on the river and the wildlife that live around it,” said Fisher. “We want to build five or six additional cisterns, and our goal is that by 2025, 100 percent of the rainwater that touches our property will be collected and reused. There are a couple of spots where there are trees and buildings and those will be tricky, but we’re committed.”

Seize Opportunities 

The two and a half acre living roof at the California Academy of Sciences in San francisco, Calif. © California Academy of Sciences.

In San Francisco, the building of a new facility to house the California Academy of Sciences’ aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum presented the opportunity to create a model of environmental efficiency. The project’s most significant external water conservation strategy came via the building’s two and a half acre “living roof” which is comprised of hills and fields that replicate the surrounding area and are home to more than 100 native plant species.

“Instead of the rainwater going into storm drains, it irrigates the plants that cover the roof,” said Scott Moran, senior director of exhibits and architecture. “The roof can absorb up to 3.6 million gallons of rainwater per year, and when it can’t absorb any more, the water slowly percolates into the ground around the building and naturally returns to the water table.”

Inside the building, the Steinhart Aquarium boasts seven exhibits that range from 16,000 to 212,000 gallons, all of which are now set up on more modern closed loop systems with high pressure sand filters, a significant upgrade from the flow-through system in the old facility.  “There are still water change outs, but they don’t have to happen as frequently because of the efficiency of the filters,” said Moran.

These and other features contributed to the building receiving two LEED Platinum awards from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the world’s first “double platinum” museum.

Set Your Sights High

Conserving water wasn’t a new goal for the Shedd Aquarium, but aiming to reduce water usage by half certainly was. Through a range of initiatives, the Aquarium reduced its lake and city water usage from 57.919 million gallons in 2007 to 27.741 million gallons in 2017. And the 2017 figure is down almost 900,000 gallons from 2016. “If we hadn’t done what we’ve done, we’d be spending another $250,000 a year,” said Wengel.         

The most effective strategies included replacing the cooling tower and installing a condenser loop connected to the tower for the refrigeration units throughout the facility, a project that saved almost 9,000,000 gallons of water. And the installation of a salt water transfer system that moved water from exhibits for reuse in the Oceanarium system for marine mammals saved an additional 3,000,000 gallons a year.  In 2015, Shedd received a Governor’s Sustainability Award from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As water use is inextricably linked to energy use, Shedd has set a new goal of reducing energy use by 50 percent by 2020. According to Wengel, “Every kilowatt hour we save, every gallon of water we save is just as important as every field conservation project that we have going on here at Shedd because conservation starts right here.”

Improve Efficiency

In St. Louis, Mo., the Saint Louis Zoo’s decade-long focus on conserving water has reaped impressive results. “By reducing our water consumption by 60 percent in the past ten years we saved on average over $617,000 annually on our water and sewer costs,” said Wanda Evans, sustainability coordinator. “Fifty percent of the water reductions occurred between 2014 and 2016, saving us $1.1 million annually compared to 2005.”

Strategies ranged from easy fixes to more significant changes. Staff repaired leaks and put water fountains on timers instead of running them 24/7 and replaced “dump and fill” systems in old exhibits with recirculated life systems. They also plan to use raingarden substrates to replace a decommissioned exhibit that featured a lot of concrete.

One significant investment involved installing 80 water meters. “They help us shed light on exactly what is happening in a building so we can tweak and make changes as necessary,” said Evans. “We tied the water meters into a computerized system which made us much more efficient in tracking and troubleshooting issues.”

They also conducted a staff education and awareness campaign that included big picture information like how the municipal water system works. “When we can point to the conservation of natural resources on our campus and explain how it ties to the animals, that message resonates with our staff,” said Evans.

Spread the Word

Some facilities, like the Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown, S.D., have adopted the role of water conservation educator for the public. The Zoo houses the Upper Big Sioux River Watershed Project, an initiative that is dedicated to restoring and maintaining the quality of water of the Big Sioux River and its tributaries by reducing sediment and bacterial loadings. In addition to housing the project, the Zoo serves as an educational hub.

“We constructed an exhibit featuring the Upper Big Sioux Watershed and a CD featuring Jane Goodall talking about water conservation,” said Dan Miller, director of the Bramble Park Zoo. “They educate visitors about the importance of watershed conservation; and we also offer educational programming that teaches students about the watershed.”

“One of the important things we found out is that people thought it was the Zoo’s responsibility to talk about broader environmental issues, and not just animals. They understood that we practiced what we preached and they thought it was fun.”

At the Bronx Zoo, in Bronx, N.Y., a single restroom has become an effective teaching tool. It is located at the Bronxdale entrance, which is used by 60 percent of the Zoo’s 2,000,000 annual visitors. “We took out the old building and redesigned a building that was green in every way,” said Susan Chin, vice president of planning and design and chief architect for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We put in waterless urinals, low-flow faucets and 18 self-composting toilets.” The toilets use 99 percent less water than a conventional toilet and all water goes to a biofiltration garden before going back into the aquifer.

The restroom serves as a light-hearted educational exhibit, with posted messages that combine fun facts from The Truth About Poop by Susan Goodman with explanations of how the toilets save water and why conserving this natural resource is so important.

“We got great feedback from the public,” said Chin. “One of the important things we found out is that people thought it was the Zoo’s responsibility to talk about broader environmental issues, and not just animals. They understood that we practiced what we preached and they thought it was fun.”

For all of these AZA members, conservation efforts extend beyond the protection of endangered species. They are stewards of the natural world who set a great example by talking the talk and walking the walk.

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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