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Solutions on Tap: California Public Transit Agencies Ahead of Governor's Call to Save Water
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
When California Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 25 percent cut in the state’s water use by Feb. 28, 2016, most public transit agencies were well beyond meeting—and exceeding—that mandate.
In fact, agency leaders in the state report that their existing conservation and recycling efforts mean they will not need to take any additional measures to comply. That said, their efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle continue—saving millions of gallons of water with little or no negative impact on their fleet maintenance.
Cris B. Liban, executive officer, compliance and sustainability, for Los Angeles Metro, noted that in 2010 the agency began implementing a comprehensive water action plan that ultimately should save about 200 million gallons a year. Metro had some challenges in the early years of the plan, he said, but those issues have been resolved and the agency is making up for lost time. Nonetheless, Metro operations used approximately 298 million gallons of water in 2014, 28 percent less than the previous year.
But L.A. Metro’s sustainability initiatives began long before, in 2003, he said, as part of a report on environmental considerations of the agency’s design criteria. These include installation of bioswales to infiltrate stormwater and resupply groundwater resources, introduction of water-efficient cleaning equipment for bus stop areas and planting of drought-tolerant shrubs and trees.
The agency introduced its first water use and conservation plan in 2009, which it has updated on a continuing basis since its introduction. The most recent version of this report is available at http://media.metro.net.
Regarding water use in washing its fleet—2,212 directly operated buses, 104 heavy rail vehicles and 171 light rail vehicles—Liban described how Metro uses both “downstream” and “upstream” solutions to keeping its vehicles clean. “Upstream” refers to preliminary measures that can lessen the need to use as much water: Metro is conducting a pilot project with Diamond Seal System, which has created a non-stick exterior coating that makes the surfaces more durable and easier to clean of soil and mud. “Downstream” refers to recycling and reusing water after it has been through the washing process.
Liban said the testing phase of the pilot will end in December, with ongoing evaluations through February 2016.
“Since 2003, Metro has been actively pursuing water conservation strategies in all of its construction and operations and maintenance of its system,” he said. “Particularly for bus washing, it has not only implemented downstream technologies such as the reuse and recycle of washwater, the agency is currently exploring upstream strategies such as the application of nanotechnology coating on its buses to keep the buses from getting dirty to begin with.”
Another part of Metro’s sustainability effort is solar panels, which need to be washed occasionally. Liban said the agency is considering a painted-on coating that would repel dust but not affect the operation of the panels.
Foothill Transit in West Covina has cut its water consumption by 30 percent as part of its multi-pronged Environmental & Sustainability Management System (ESMS). Other water-related elements include updating its bus washing equipment to reclaim 80 percent of wastewater via reverse osmosis and using drought-tolerant plants to reduce outdoor water use.
Foothill Transit implemented the ESMS in two years and became ISO 14001 certified in April 2013. These efforts also helped the agency raise its level in the APTA Sustainability Commitment from silver to gold this year.
“The drought touches everything we do, from how we provide quality service to our stewardship of resources,” said Doran Barnes, executive director of Foothill Transit and APTA secretary-treasurer. “Public transit already has a big footprint in improving public awareness of environmental impacts. It’s vital that as California agencies, we also provide local leadership in water use, which confirms that our commitment to environmental responsibility doesn’t end at the curb. It’s one piece of how we’re wedded to our communities.”
The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) introduced water-saving measures in 2007, the last time it faced concerns about water, according to Chief Executive Officer Darrell Johnson. By installing low-flow faucets and toilets, changing its landscaping to incorporate drought-tolerant plants and reducing the frequency of bus washing from daily to twice a week, OCTA realized a 20 percent saving in water use—equivalent to 7 million gallons annually, or the contents of 10 Olympic-size swimming pools. In addition, the agency uses a treatment system that reclaims and filters bus washwater for reuse, saving about 30 gallons from each wash. The agency has 556 fixed-route buses and 248 paratransit vehicles in its fleet.
OCTA recently stepped up its efforts with the “Every Drop Counts” campaign, joining Caltrans, elected officials and representatives of the region’s two largest water districts to promote conservation to county residents. The agency is using wrapped buses that serve as “big moving billboards” and window clings for all buses in the fleet to spread the word about saving water.
Johnson also noted that OCTA—which also oversees roads in the county—has additional measures planned. The agency has completed installation of drought-tolerant plants instead of grass at its bus operations base in Garden Grove and has applied for a rebate to replace grass with artificial turf at its Anaheim bus operations base.
Measure M, Orange County’s voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, also addresses water quality and runoff issues through its Environmental Cleanup Program. Two percent of Measure M money—expected to total about $300 million over the 30-year life of the measure—has been earmarked to improve and save water throughout Orange County.
Under this program, cities can apply for funding for projects such as retrofitted sprinkler systems with more advanced nozzles and controllers and irrigation systems that are set back farther from the streets, causing water savings and less runoff into storm drains. Between 2011 and 2014, Measure M funded 15 projects with water-saving features, helping cumulatively save about 56 million gallons of water each year.
Farther north in Stockton, the San Joaquin Regional Transit District cited its participation in the federally funded Environmental Sustainability Management System program as a major step toward increased sustainability. RTD General Manager/Chief Executive Officer Donna DeMartino noted that participants from the agency learned “not only from the instructors at Virginia Tech, where it was held, but also from our peers—the 10 other agencies that participated in the program.”
DeMartino continued, “Because we want to be good environmental stewards and part of our core values is environmental sustainability, we’ve made many changes in our operation.”
For example, in addition to installing low-water-use plumbing fixtures in both employee and public facilities, RTD added sensors that prevent irrigation systems from operating within 48 hours of rainfall. The agency now washes its buses once a week rather than every day and reuses the washwater for landscaping.
In response to the ongoing drought in its region, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) implemented water reduction strategies a year prior to the governor’s order. For example, the system cut its washwater use by half when it changed the train car washing schedule from every four days to every eight days, and BART recycles 90 percent of the water it does use.
“BART has made a concerted effort to significantly cut back on water usage at our stations, shops, yards and facilities,” said General Manager Grace Crunican. “We’ve been strategic in our efforts to cut back in ways that make a difference but don’t impact the health and safety of our riders and employees.”
BART’s other water conservation steps include reducing its irrigation schedule by approximately two-thirds since February 2013, updating the landscape design to integrate low-water, low-maintenance plants, introducing upgrades for toilets at its facilities and promoting awareness of water use by employees when not on the job.
But even with these conservation strategies in place, public transit agencies will always need water for a variety of purposes, including washing their vehicles. How has the California drought affected the manufacturers of vehicle washing equipment?
Bitimec manufactures small washing units on wheels, attached to a hand-held power brush that strictly limits the amount of water. Customers can wash a vehicle with only 25 gallons of water, applied just before and after using the brush, compared with 100-120 gallons used in permanent washing units. “We literally use only enough water that the brush needs,” said Bitimec President Bruno Albanesi.
Albanesi explained that his units also eliminate water waste by parceling out the water as needed, unlike systems with pressure washers that may not have a shut-off valve and may keep the water running even when it is not needed. He noted that the SunLine Transit Agency in Thousand Palms, CA, is among Bitimec’s customers, along with school bus and university fleets.
NS Corporation, a manufacturer of free-standing bus and railcar wash units, incorporates water reclamation systems into its products. Francis Tenggardjaja, executive vice president, explained that these units collect the used washwater, let it sit in two or three tanks to allow dirt and other suspended solids to settle out, then filter it in preparation for reuse. That water can be reused repeatedly, he said. Clean water is used for the final rinse, but that accounts for only 15 percent of the total amount of water used in the process.
Tenggardjaja also said his company is implementing more efficient technologies that allow for less water use. Earlier washers, he said, mixed soap into water and then sprayed the mixture onto the vehicle. Now, by mixing the soap with air to create a foam, it sticks better on the vehicle and lessens the need for water. Another water-saving measure comes from using smaller nozzles.
Other innovations keep water from flowing off the washed vehicle and into a storm drain, he added. In the past, bus washers used forced air to dry the vehicles at the end of the wash; newer technologies integrate a squeegee with the air blower to suck up the remaining droplets before the vehicle leaves the washer.
An OCTA bus wrapped in the message “Every Drop Counts—Join Us In Saving Water” was unveiled outside agency headquarters, launching a public awareness campaign supported by several other public agencies, including Caltrans.
Los Angeles Metro is currently testing a non-stick exterior coating designed to ease the cleaning process and allow less water use.