First a passenger drought. Now a water drought. Can California airports cope?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News online)

First airports had to deal with a drought of passengers due to the pandemic.

Now airports in many parts of the U.S. West join their communities in facing a summer plagued by water shortages.

But in California, at least, where the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that almost 95% of the state is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions, airports say years of conservation efforts make them well-prepared.

In response to past droughts, Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport (STS) removed grass from many locations, added drought tolerant plantings, and upgraded the car wash facility so that it captures and recycles 85% of the wash water.

“We also installed a system that uses solar panels to run condensing units that extract moisture from the air, stores, and filters the water, and then distributes it through a wall-mounted water bottle fill station in the office,” said airport manager Jon Stout.

SJC’s Topiary Bear Should be Fine

Like many airports, Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) has automatic faucets and low-flow toilets in terminal restrooms. Recycled water is used in restrooms, to handwash the terminal windows twice a year, and to water drought-tolerant landscaping on airport grounds, including SJC’s much-loved topiary bear. Airport spokeswoman Demetria Machado says the cheerful bear is an “SJC staple” that has been greeting travelers at SJC for many years and has survived droughts before.

In addition to low-flow fixtures and water recapture systems for car wash operations, Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) has landscaping that requires minimal maintenance and little or no water usage yet remains visually appealing. And instead of traditional landscaping, the parking lots “have a hardscape design that uses an assortment of rocks to depict a waterway scheme,” says airport spokeswoman Vikkie Calderon.  

Nixed water cannon salutes, waterless urinals, and air-conditioning drippings

At Sacramento International Airport (SMF), landscaped areas are watered “at the lowest level possible to maintain viability while minimizing the risk of fire hazards,” says spokesman Scott Johnston, and “concessions only serve water on request.”  Water cannon salutes, which can use up to 4,000 gallons of water and are often used to celebrate inaugural flights or retiring captains, have been discontinued at SMF, as they have for years at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and many other airports in drought prone areas.

“Now firefighters do a hand salute instead,” says SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

Like every airport NBC contacted, Palm Springs International (PSP), which saves water with waterless urinals and ongoing efforts to make its landscaping desert friendly, stands ready to comply with any new water conservation or water emergency guidelines issued by city, county, or state officials this summer. At PSP, that could means turning off the airport’s iconic water fountain, which it did during a severe drought in 2015.

Aggressive water conservation efforts at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) are part of the ambitious sustainability action plan adopted by Los Angeles World Airports in 2019. The plan calls for significantly increasing the amount of reclaimed water used for activities such as irrigation and dust mitigation during construction and already seems to be working: In 2020, over 27 million gallons of reclaimed water was used at LAX, a 39% increase from 2019.

San Diego International Airport (SAN) captures, stores, and reuses all the rain that falls on the top deck of its 7.6-acre parking plaza and has a 3-million-gallon underground cistern to capture stormwater from airport property north of the runway.

SAN also currently captures 100,000 gallons of condensate annually from the air conditioning units that cool passenger boarding bridges and the aircraft parked at just 16 of SAN’s 51 gates. That water is used to power-wash the sidewalks in front of the terminals and for other airport washing needs. But in 2019, some of the condensate was purified and used by a local brewery, Ballast Point, to brew a limited-edition beer called SAN Test Pilot. COVID-19 put a damper on new brews made with the airport’s condensate, but the airport plans to get that program back on track post-pandemic.

Droughts don’t drive all airport water conservation efforts

While parts of Oregon and eastern Washington are experiencing record low rainfall this year, in the Seattle area there is little talk of drought. But as part of its environmental sustainability program, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has two sets of restrooms that use captured rainwater to flush toilets.

Water from the roof is stored in two 15,000-gallon tanks installed during the recent expansion of the North Satellite and will save 2.8 million gallons of potable water annually. “That’s equal to 4.5 Olympic swimming pools,” notes airports spokesman Perry Cooper, “Or enough to supply 300 households with water for an entire year.”

California airports dealing with drought

01_Mineta San Jose  Int'l Airport - The topiary bear that greets motorists at SJC is in no danger

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.

Mineta San Jose Int'l Airport sign

San Jose Mineta Int'l Airport_ Windows no longer pressure washed, but washed by hand, and with recycled water.

“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.

Palm Springs International Airport pond without water - now

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.

SAC_When Sacramento Int'l Airport Terminal B was built, 9 acres of asphalt parking was converted back to landscape &  natural habitat with drought-tolerant plants.

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.

SAN - collecting drippings, with the boxlike AC unit hanging underneath the passenger boarding bridge. It is connected to the blue collection barrel in the foreground

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.

SAN DRIPPINGis actual condensate dripping from a bridge before the recovery apparatus was put in place.

(My story about California airports dealing with drought first appeared in USA TODAY, in my At the Airport column. Photos courtesy of the airports.)