Airports in California must obey strict local and state water conservation rules, but the topiary bear that greets arriving motorists at Mineta San Jose International (SJC) needn’t sweat.
The 12-year-old bear is well-established and, along with nearby native and drought-tolerant plantings, gets by with a sip of recycled water delivered every two weeks by the airport’s high-tech irrigation system.
Recycled water is also used in SJC’s low-flow toilets and to clean the sidewalks and the exteriors of the airport buildings.
“The windows in our two terminals are washed twice a year: before the peak year-end travel season and in the spring,” said Rosemary Barnes, SJC’s public information officer. “We no longer pressure-wash the windows, but wash them by hand using recycled water.”
Recycled water is also part of the conservation plan at many other California airports, including Los Angeles International, John Wayne and Fresno Yosemite, where established conservation efforts include low-flow washroom fixtures, synthetic turf and curbed watering programs.
On their own and in response to new water saving mandates, airports in the state are taking steps to save even more water.
A few years back, Palm Springs International Airport installed waterless urinals that have been saving the airport an average of 44,000 gallons per unit per year.
Now, in response to the drought the airport has shut down three water features, reduced landscape watering to three evenings a week and will soon begin eliminating all landside grass, according to airport executive Thomas Nolan.
Oakland International has also cut back its watering schedule and increased inspections of the airport’s irrigation system to make sure it is has not sprung any leaks.
In addition to measures that include serving water only by request in the food courts, Sacramento International Airport has removed some areas of turf and now waters “at the lowest level possible to keep landscaping viable while minimizing the risk of fire hazards,” said airport spokeswoman Laurie Slothower.
“We are in the process of hiring a landscape engineer to help us determine our long-term plans for landscaping. There will be less of it, for sure,” she said.
Even car rental companies do their part. The Hertz Corporation, which also operates the Thrifty, Dollar and Firefly car rental brands, recycles 80% to 90% of the water used to wash cars at airports, said company spokeswoman Anna Bootenhoff, “and we are continually evaluating ways to reduce in this area.”
No more water canon salutes
San Francisco International Airport has implemented many similar conservation measures, including reducing sidewalk hose-downs and working with airport tenants to reduce water usage.
The airport has also discontinued the customary water cannon salutes that celebrate new carriers and major new routes. Each water salute used about 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel, and the airport had been averaging about one salute per month before the practice was discontinued.
Due to the drought, Los Angeles International and Burbank Bob Hope Airport also stopped the ceremonial use of water to welcome new carriers. And this year the Burbank airport nixed a popular demonstration performed by an airport fire department vehicle in a local parade.
“The vehicle would shoot a canon of water while driving down the parade route, showing the fire rescue truck’s ability to pump and roll,” said airport spokeswoman Lucy Burghdorf.
Every drop counts
In its response to the drought, San Diego International Airport (SAN) found a previously untapped source of water: the air conditioning units under passenger boarding bridges.
Water created by condensation – condensate – from those units had traditionally just dripped onto the tarmac and evaporated, but in 2014 the airport began capturing that water and reusing it.
During 2014, SAN collected more than 5,225 gallons of condensate. And this year, the first full year of the program, the airport hopes to collect up to 840,000 gallons of condensate, an amount equal to the water used by five typical households in a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“While conservation is important, sometimes you have to get a little creative if you truly want to make a difference,” said Jonathan Heller, SAN spokesman.
(My story about California airports dealing with drought first appeared in USA TODAY, in my At the Airport column. Photos courtesy of the airports.)