Facing ongoing drought, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank has made water conservation a critical priority.
THE CALIFORNIA drought was stretching into its fifth year and water reservoir levels were dropping to unprecedented lows. Like the rest of the state, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank was looking for ways to manage its water usage. The medical center has been in Burbank since its founding by the Sisters of Providence in 1943. With more than 400 beds, it is the second-largest hospital serving the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys and offers a wide range of medical and health services to tens of thousands of patients each year.
When it comes to water conservation, small adjustments can have a large impact over time. Providence Saint Joseph had previously taken steps to minimize water use, such as placing flow restrictors on all faucets and switching entirely to low-flow, high-efficiency toilets—but water conservation remained a critical priority.
“We have been on a larger program of curtailment and conservation for some years,” said director of facilities Ian Watts, “but it has been a sequential process.” Watts has been working at the medical center for 30 years, so he is very well acquainted with the intricacies of Providence Saint Joseph’s water system.
Droughts are nothing new to California. Los Angeles has a long history of recycling wastewater, but its neighbor to the south, Burbank, has an extensive water reclamation program of its own and has been at the forefront of treating wastewater for nonpotable uses. The city also encourages local companies to use reclaimed water by waiving sewage fees and partnering with industry to install the new systems.
When the city sent a request to Providence Saint Joseph three years ago asking the medical center to connect sections of its campus water system to the Burbank reclaimed-wastewater system, the medical center knew the time was right for a larger commitment.
In 2013 the medical center began a program of sustainable irrigation by linking to three newly installed reclaimed-water meters for outdoor watering. The first phase connected nearly 80 percent of the irrigation system to recycled water.
The worst drought in recorded history was a good incentive for conserving water, but in keeping with their core values as a mission-driven health care system, environmental stewardship went much deeper at Providence Saint Joseph.
“Stewardship—the careful protection of our resources—is one of the Providence core values,” said CEO Julie Sprengel in a press release. “These values date back nearly 160 years, but are timeless. We all have to pull together to do what we can to protect our water supply.”
In 2015, working closely with the city of Burbank and state health care regulators, the medical center vastly expanded its use of reclaimed water to include running the cooling towers that power the air-conditioning system.
With California’s triple-digit summer heat, industrial air-conditioning systems are a major drain on water resources and often represent the largest percentage of water consumption in industrial operations.
Switching the air-conditioning system to reclaimed water saves approximately 15 million gallons of water each year, but the project was much more expensive than it would be for typical commercial use because hospital infrastructure standards are specialized to ensure patient safety.
Fortunately, the city and the Metropolitan Water District helped defray the installation costs. “We appreciate the city’s support in helping us realize these savings,” Watts said. “We have a great working relationship.”
The first phase of joining irrigation to the reclaimed water system was under city authorization and had less state oversight. The second phase—connecting the air-conditioning cooling towers—was much more complicated and required the supervision of California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, introducing added expenses and multiple layers of oversight and approval.
OSHPD looks at everything from the underground placement of reclaimed water pipes and their proximity to pipes with potable water, to the type of backflow devices that can be used, to the color and type of piping and signage.
Despite the scope of the project, Providence Saint Joseph understood how the use of reclaimed water could help maintain available fresh water as a renewable resource. This is particularly important in a state that is increasingly pulling water from the environment faster than it can be naturally replaced. And after the initial expense of setting up a new system ($400,000 in Providence Saint Joseph’s case), reclaimed water is also less expensive to purchase than potable water, with the medical center already seeing annual savings of $120,000.
“This was a great advance, and we will be ever mindful as we go forward that there will be new requirements as well,” said Watts.
All of the steps that the hospital has taken—using reclaimed water for air conditioning and irrigation, installing water-saving devices and replacing existing equipment with more water-efficient versions—were moves in the right direction. But Providence Saint Joseph takes environmental stewardship seriously and is always keeping an eye on the future use of resources and care of the earth. By using reclaimed wastewater to meet industrial water needs, thus avoiding waste and using water more efficiently, the hospital not only improves its own ecosystem, it also helps to guarantee there will be enough water for today’s needs and the needs of the future.