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University of Utah students make campus a greener place

Published: Thursday, May 6 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Thomas Walsh, left, places plants as Dasch Houdeshel, center, both University of Utah students, digs holes for other plants, and civil engineering professor Steve Burian watches the progress on what will be a rain garden near the Civil and Materials Engineering building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday.

T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — From turning out the lights and planting more trees to replacing light bulbs with new magnetic induction technology, University of Utah students are hoping for a cleaner, greener world — at least on their 1,534-acre campus.

"Little by little, we want to show and hopefully prove that this is applicable across campus," said environmental engineering graduate student Thomas Walsh. He and colleague Dasch Houdeshel designed a bio-retention garden featuring drought-resistant, native plant species, which will pool rain water, store it underground and re-channel it for better use to help alleviate the burden of the U.'s current irrigation system.

On Wednesday, a handful of Earth-conscious U. students gathered to dig, plant and style the new "rain garden" at the southeast corner of the U.'s Civil and Material Engineering building. It is the first and most notable project to be built with funding from the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, which is being collected as a portion of student fees.

Last year, students voted to assess the fee of $2.50 per student per semester, taking the campus green initiative into their own hands.

The university has set several eco-friendly goals, including water neutrality or finding ways to best use available water, which will ultimately reduce the campus' carbon footprint, as well as preserve the campus for future generations while cutting costs. But students say it can't all be done at administrative levels.

Stickers indicating that lights left on use more energy, for example, have been pasted on hundreds of light switches across campus. Recycling bins dot the landscape, as well.

Already, the efficiency of vending machines has been increased, just by installing a device that shuts off the interior lighting when the units are not in use. The simple fix aims to save up to 35 percent on energy bills, and coupled with utilities rebates, the project should turn around a profit within four years. A design to cool chemicals in the organic chemistry lab using dry ice is in the works and will potentially save more than 95,000 gallons of water each year.

These projects, including a marketing campaign to commit more students to action, are some of the 15 energy-saving efforts approved for funding and implementation this year. The first round of projects totals about $35,000, while a second round will cost $52,000.

"I'm all for it," said Walsh, who is interested in green infrastructure and low-impact development. "Any way we can make sustainability more palpable and less tree-huggy is good. These are things that are scientifically based, that everyone can do on a smaller scale."

Whitney Williams, coordinator of the U. fund, said the projects are a great idea to get students thinking on an environmentally conscious level. She is part of a committee of eight which selected the first and second rounds of projects from more than 30 proposals requiring funding. The next deadline will be in November, and the group is looking for ideas that will help to eventually sustain the fund, in terms of energy conservation as a financial payback, along with a lasting environmental benefit, visibility, creativity and student involvement.

Williams said the fund re-generates every semester from the student fee, and 70 percent of the projects are expected to have energy savings that will go back into the fund to keep the program sustainable.

"We want to go as far as we can with it," Walsh said, adding that his next project will involve burying large clay pots in the ground. It is his hope that much like in ancient times, the pots will absorb water during a wet season and then distribute the moisture throughout the soil more evenly throughout the year.

"We want to institute a lot of little projects to show they really are effective and efficient," he said, adding he hopes the ideas will spread across campus, duplicate, and someday, irrigation systems can be switched off.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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