UW student Emily Adams says her planned system will save an average of 40,000 gallons of water each year between the months of April and November.[/media-credit]

Madison has no apparent shortage of water. Sandwiched between two lakes with others in the area, many familiar sights around town are near a body of water. Yet water usage and shortage has become a global issue, worsening with the world’s growing population.

Certain large organizations and non-profits have tried to tackle the problem on the global scale. Many people have taken personal initiatives with smaller projects, too. Madison has one such individual, and her name is Emily Adams.

While always interested in sustainability, Adams admits that until recently, “I’ve always been a very devoted recycler, but that was the extent of my environmental conservation efforts.” It was her experiences at the University of Wisconsin that galvanized her passion and helped her find an outlet. She claims that “coming to (UW) has unveiled the importance of protecting our Earth to me.”

Adams’ interest in conserving water started with issues of global health. After a number of classes on the topic last semester, she recalls, “Water sustainability really struck a chord with me.” As a housing resident, she witnessed water usage and waste, on a larger scale. “Water is such a precious resource, even though it may appear we have an abundance of it.” She also found not only inefficiency but opportunity, and her interest in water sustainability would soon become a tangible project.

The average student might have harnessed this motivation into a poster campaign, or a one-off discussion on water use. Adams, however, shows little interest in thinking on a small scale. “I knew I wanted to come up with a project that would impact the residence hall communities on campus,” she recalls. Doing most of the work herself, she began to sketch up ideas before settling on what to do first. Currently, she is working on the first step of her plan, installing rain collection barrels on the roof of Tripp Hall.

Originally, the barrels were to be installed on the roof of Cole Hall. The placement would have been fitting, since the building houses the GreenHouse Learning Community, which centers on sustainability. But the building’s roof is flat and drains through the center of the building straight to the lake. Adams had to adapt, and she looked to other buildings.

The barrels are a solid concept on their own, but Adams has also planned every detail. Not only does the system collect water for landscaping uses, it also eliminates the unattractive drainage system currently used in Tripp. The barrels are even routed to a drip watering system that regularly and precisely waters the plants near the roots. In true form, Adams is even being efficient in using the water being saved.

While the number of barrels is currently up in the air, there will likely be three or four, eventually. With data from the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, Adams estimates the barrels will collect rain from April to November and will hopefully cover much of Tripp’s 2,500 square foot roof. They are estimated to save an average of 40,000 gallons of water annually just from Tripp’s roof. As Adams puts it simply, “This is a significant amount of water saved.” It would be hard to argue otherwise.

Adams also hopes to merge physical and educational sustainability efforts. While conserving water with the barrels, she also hopes to educate students on efficient water usage to maximize conservation. In her words, the goal of the project is “building a bridge between the physical structures that are created, and the value of sustainability and conservation.”

So far, she considers the different drainage systems on various buildings to be her largest obstacle. The systems are not uniform and vary with building design. Adams doesn’t seem fazed, though, stating that “different types of drainage systems are going to continue to challenge my efforts, but I know I will find a way to overcome it.”

If everything goes as planned, both parts of this effort will be made possible by cooperation from student organizations and volunteers on or around campus. Adams places a considerable amount of weight on these volunteers, saying that “student involvement is very important to the project.” She hopes to tap into the resources and knowledge of organizations like REthink Wisconsin and the GreenHouse Learning Community to help bring the project to the attention of the entire campus.

That doesn’t mean that the barrels on Tripp are the end for the physical water conservation plan. Adams’ tenacity has found her planning on a larger scale. She hopes to eventually install the barrels on university buildings in addition to other buildings in University Housing, and she’s already scoping out options, listing Bascom Hall, the Red Gym, Soil Sciences, Allen Centennial Gardens and many others. The scheme even has a name: Bucky Barrels.

This “multifarious” approach, as Adams put it, is the most exciting part of the initiative. The potential for F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture to use the barrels is one such possibility. They might eventually be able to water plants at the Eagle Heights Community Garden with just water from the barrels.

Even with her perseverance and her progress, Adams admits, “When my idea was still a spark, I thought it was going to be a cake walk to put together.” She is undaunted, saying, “It has been a long process, but it has been a satisfying one.” 

Her primary motivation is hoping to see her project realized on the largest scale. As she puts it, “To watch something you have envisioned go from a spark to an illuminating flame is an incredible feeling.”