Thirsty Calif. hospitals curtail water use
California hospitals are reducing their nonessential water use as their state enters its fourth consecutive year of drought.
Healthcare providers are exempt from many of the mandatory water restrictions, but the state’s largest health systems say they have a number of sustainability efforts in place to reduce their water and energy use.
Hospitals are particularly waterintensive businesses. According to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, large U.S. hospitals used about 133 billion gallons of water in 2007. That’s an average of 145,000 gallons per bed, roughly the same as the annual consumption of a four-person household.
Yet California health- care leaders are not ready to share their contingency plans, in the event that drought is the new normal. A California Hospital Association spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Common provider conservation measures include installing low-flow plumbing in restrooms, pressure-washing outdoor common areas less often and modifying landscaping to include more drought-resistant greenery.
“We look at climate change as a healthcare issue, and this is why we’ve made this commitment to renewable energy,” said Ramé Hemstreet, chief energy officer at Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente.
Kaiser, with 38 hospitals in California, Hawaii and Oregon, committed in February to shifting 50% of its power needs to renewable energy sources, at a cost of $35 million a year. “There’s an energy-water nexus,” Hemstreet said. “The more you can conserve one, the more you impact the other.” Kaiser also has spent $15 million on water-reduction projects. This year the system cut its water use 10% from its 2013 baseline.
Stanford Health Care found that it used 35% of its water for bathrooms, 28% for industrial processes such as medical vacuum pumps, and 16% for patient exam rooms where doctors wash their hands or use autoclave sterilizers. Moving to more sustainable steam sterilizers has helped Stanford save 10 million gallons of water a year; upgrading its vacuum pumps has saved another 2 million gallons.
The two-hospital, Palo Alto-based system also has decommissioned all but one of its decorative outdoor water features. The one that remains in use is part of its disaster emergency plan.
Employees have brought many ideas for reducing water use, said Krisanne Hanson, director of sustainability at Stanford University Medical Center. “We’ve campaigned that if you see a leak, there’s one number to call,” she said.
Sutter Health in Sacramento has consolidated laundry services for its 25 hospitals into a single LEED-certified facility, saving about 12 million gallons of water a year, a spokeswoman said.
In addition, Sutter’s use of low-flow shower heads, faucets and toilets has helped reduce water consumption 27% at its Solano Medical Center in Vallejo, 16% at its Davis Hospital and 13% at its Amador Hospital in Jackson.
Both Stanford and Sutter are building new Bay Area campuses that emphasize sustainability. And in a crisis, many health systems have their own water reserves they can tap.
Still, no one interviewed for this story expressed concern that the situation would reach that crisis point. Desert countries have successfully taken measures such as recycling wastewater and opening desalination plants, and there’s significant progress California can make in those areas.
“I have confidence that in the United States we’ll make sure that the taps don’t run dry,” Hemstreet said. “It would be tremendous overreaction that we have to worry about hospitals running out of water.”