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Community Garden water cistern benefits sustainability while cutting costs

Selena Quintanilla
Chet Phillips , Coordinator of Students for Sustainability and Compost Cats, speaks before the ribbon cutting for the new cistern at the UA Community GArden on Thursday, Nov. 3. The cistern helps save $100s on the water bill drastically lowering its final cost at around $70.

On a cloudy afternoon, UA students, faculty and staff members gathered to celebrate the new water-harvesting cistern in the UA Community Garden.

The cistern, a result of three years of planning and work, collects rainwater from the Highland Garage to be used to irrigate the garden.

The celebration kicked off with a ribbon cutting ceremony around the cistern, followed by refreshments in the garden. The Associated Students of the University of Arizona program Students for Sustainability finished their work on the cistern this summer. Since then, the cistern has harvested over 30,000 gallons of water, according to ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental science senior Trevor Ledbetter, one of the UASFS co-directors.

RELATED: Students for Sustainability: The student program that makes the UA a greener place

The cistern is one of the first “major sustainable permanent” project on campus, according to plant sciences senior Jackie Mendelson , UASFS Garden Committee chair.

“The cistern is incredibly exciting because it will serve generations of gardeners and UA students to come,” Mendelson said. “It really stands as a lasting symbol of what students can do to make sustainable change on campus.”

Making the cistern a reality took a lot of planning, according to Mendelson. The UA Green Fund provided a grant for the cistern, and UASFS worked with engineering consultants and Facilities Management to put together the cistern, according to biomedical engineering senior Paul Elias, the former UASFS Water Committee chair. Elias worked on this project while he held the position.

The team also had to build a solar-powered pump for the cistern. Gravity can help with water pressure for the irrigation lines when the cistern has lots of water in it, but when there isn’t as much water, the pump can help with its water pressure, Mendelson said.

Elias said the IT Student Advisory Board provided a grant of $5,000 for the solar pump, and during the summer, students dug trenches in the garden for the solar pump.

Now complete, the cistern can hold 20,000 gallons of rainwater, according to Chet Phillips, UASFS coordinator. Half of the rainwater runoff is rerouted from Highland Garage to the cistern, Ledbetter said. When monsoon rains fill up the cistern, a passive rainwater harvesting system collects extra rainwater through basins so that it can infiltrate to the groundwater, according to Ledbetter.

RELATED: Gardens and greenhouses feed the UA

Alongside increasing sustainability, the cistern decreased the Community Garden’s water bill. Sometimes the water bill of the garden would be hundreds of dollars, but the past month, it was under $70, Mendelson said.

The cistern may have a new look in the future. The Environmental Arts committee for the UASFS is in the process of applying for a mini-grant from the UA Green Fund to fund a community event to paint a desert scene on the cistern, according to art history junior Alex Lambert, chair of the Environmental Arts Committee. The event would be in February or March.

“We just want to get art into the garden and showcase the community,” Lambert said.

Phillips said this is not the first cistern on campus, but that it is the largest one. He said he hopes the new cistern becomes a “showcase” of what can be done on campus and that, in the future, he sees more of these.

“Just look around, there are lots of large buildings here, and we could be saving a whole lot of water and using harvested rainwater to irrigate our landscapes,” he said.

Phillips called the cistern “an outstanding example of student leadership,” and Elias and Mendelson also said they saw student initiative as a takeaway from the project.

“This is a tangible sustainable project on campus that’s finally come to fruition,” Elias said. “If you have an idea, just never give up and keep working on it.”

Overhead, the clouds gave way, and to the sound of cheers from the crowd gathered at the celebration, it began to rain.

Follow Ava Garcia on Twitter.

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