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UTEP looks towards a greener future

In recent years, sustainability and the concept of going “green” has become a bigger topic of conversation. After President Donald Trump announced the United States would no longer adhere to the Paris Agreement on the climate earlier this year, many cities across the U.S. have started to make their own initiatives and goals to stay sustainable. And with the help of the University of Texas at El Paso, the Borderland isn’t skipping out.

“You know, I’m not as sustainable as I should be,” said Dario Carie, a master’s student at UTEP. “I want to be more sustainable though, and practice better policy. Green policy.” Carie is at the right place. UTEP, like many other universities, act like miniature cities. They get to develop, test and refine future sustainability practices. For Carie, it means he could learn new ways to lead the city toward a greener future.

“I want to be more environmentally conscious,” said Carie. “Maybe get solar panels for electricity. You know, just try and lessen my footprint on the earth.”

“First off there’s a variety of issues that go with sustainability,” said Greg McNicol, the Associate Vice President in charge of facilities at UTEP. “Obviously there is water conservation, energy conservation and sunlight harvesting.”

Water conservation is one of the toughest things to do in the Borderland. In El Paso, the city sees roughly nine inches of rain a year. For much of the country, the average rainfall rate is over 20 inches a year. Water becomes a more prized commodity in the desert, especially when droughts set in. At UTEP, they’re finding creative ways to become more sustainable with their water.

“At UTEP we are very active with water harvesting,” said McNicol. “At the Centennial Garden area in the center of campus, we are able to harvest over half a million gallons of water in a single rain event that never makes it to the arroyo or into the river.”

That water gets sent to two storage tanks on the UTEP campus. Those storage tanks are hooked up to pipes that twist and turn through the campus avenues and can allow the facilities team to utilize that recyclable rainwater when they need instead of using the city’s water supply.

“All that’s important because we are keeping that water on campus, utilizing that asset and in the background we have a smart irrigation system that won’t run until we need it to,” said McNicol.

That irrigation system helps supply water to one of the most agricultural rich locations on campus- the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens. The gardens are a part of the universities green initiative to introduce native flora and fauna to the campus. Using native flora and fauna allow the university to keep the campus rich with agriculture that is used to living in the harsh desert. This guarantees that the water the university will use on the plants won’t go to waste.

The City of El Paso has been using water reuse programs since the mid-1980s. In 1985, El Paso Water opened their first wastewater filtration plant in Northeast El Paso. The Fred Hervey Water Reclamation water treatment plant takes reclaimed water, treats it and then pipes that water to an aquifer in the Northeast part of town where it seeps into the water supply. The water is then pulled back up for reuse in irrigation for golf courses, cemeteries and other large grassy areas in the city.

UTEP is also finding other creative ways to use water as a resource on campus.

Chilled water is used by engineers to heat and cool buildings without the use of fossil fuels.

“There are big plants, two of them on campus, that generate this,” said Jesus Carrillo, Director of Facilities at UTEP. “Then we pipe the water around to each of the buildings to heat and cool them.”

The concept is simple. Take a bucket of water, heat it up to warm up a building or chill it down to cool the buildings. Then pump the water through pipes with large fans. Those fans will move the water through the buildings which will either create heat or cool the air.

“This is just like a radiator in your car,” said Carrillo. “Except, instead of rejecting heat, we’re putting cold air out there.”

It’s a greener way to create a comfortable environment inside your office building or house without the use of fossil fuels to power your heater or air conditioner. It’s a concept that is used in several buildings on the UTEP campus and students hope the city will use the process in future building projects.

McNicol said UTEP prides itself in all of the sustainable efforts facilities has taken on, especially when it comes to chilled water.

“This allows UTEP, when you look and compare UTEP against some of the other universities that are in the same situation as us, we can sometimes beat other campuses with the amount of energy that we use to cool the buildings down, and cut it in half,” said McNicol. “That’s the beauty of the desert. We have dry air and we can get away with that whereas other parts of the state such as Houston, San Antonioand Austin might have great difficulty meeting and getting the buildings comfortable because it’s still too much humidity in the air.”

And while UTEP focuses a lot on the physical aspects of sustainability, they also educate their students on the policy that sustainability brings. Stacey Sowards is the Chair of the Department of Communications at UTEP. She also serves on the President’s Council of Sustainability.

“Part of that committee, we try to focus on what classes are teaching sustainability and sustainable practices, and what classes are completely about sustainability and what courses have a sustainability component,” said Sowards. When you think green, your mind may go to solar and wind energy or recycling your plastic and aluminum. But Sowards said there’s a lot more to sustainability when you think about the policy aspect.

“It also has a piece about social justice about workers so do they receive fair pay,” said Sowards. “Do they have the right amount of wages for this area? So there is a social justice component to it and of course the sustainability element in the classroom and curriculum.”

Educating the students of today about the policy of going green and sustainable practices can help reform and prepare the future generations in this country on how to best approach the next wave of sustainability.

“We need to continue our practices through facilities services, and improve our recycling program, include more classes on sustainability and so on,” said Sowards.

Sowards said teaching policy and sustainability concepts to students at UTEP can help make the city a better, greener place in the future. What the students learn in the classroom can easily be applied at home and in the community. That’s how sustainability can spread across the city.

"When we have alumni going out into the community or we have students doing internships, or community service or service learning projects, all of those are ways we can connect to the community," Sowards said.

As the community learns, the city’s green and sustainable lifestyle grows.

The Brio Bus system is a great example. The city made an initiative to help lower the carbon emissions of the public transportation within El Paso. All Brio buses now run on natural gas. That means the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air is reduced dramatically. It’s one way that encourages the general public to utilize public transportation.

The launch of the city’s bike share system is another public transportation example of going green. Instead of utilizing a motor vehicle to travel a short distance, you can now stop at any one of 15 bike locations across the city and rent a temporary bicycle. It eliminates the trouble of finding a parking spot in the crowded downtown section while also eliminating your carbon footprint.

“It’s an example of people taking action within our city and the good work people are doing out there,” said Sowards.

Sowards is hopeful that the future of El Paso will bring more sustainable ideas to the region. But she said it will only work as long as the residents here learn about the new technology and adapt.

“It can be something as simple as knowing the right way to recycle,” said Sowards. “Then it becomes a routine instead of something you have to think about all the time.”

Students at UTEP agree that adaptation is important and that people need to move away from the money portion of production and focus on the environmental impact of dirty industry.

“A lot of people aren’t so much worried about the environment,” said Cesar Farell, a UTEP student. “They’re worried about production and making money. And they don’t care about the effects what those large corporations have on the environment.”

Sowards said, as soon as residents begin to adapt, progress will be made when it comes to sustainability.

“Once you take that step, it gets a little easier to take the next step and so on,” said Sowards.

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