By Tina Daigneault, Chief Business Official, Perris Elementary School District and HMC Architects


California is suffering through a historic drought
California has had four consecutive years of below average rainfall and low snowpack, and the National Drought Mitigation Center reported that, as of September 1, 2015, over 46 percent of the state of California is experiencing exceptional drought conditions (1,2). As a result, many school districts across the state are grappling with unprecedented water regulations and restrictions.

How can school districts conserve water?
Perris Elementary School District (PESD) decided to tackle water conservation head on. PESD set goals for its new elementary school to exceed code regulations and incorporate the resulting strategies into its curriculum, developing both a regenerative water conservation strategy and teaching tools intended to provide experiential learning environments for its students.

Pairing conservation strategies with learning opportunities
Clearwater Elementary School, PESD’s new 750-student STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) school, uses stormwater conservation and local watershed revitalization strategies as elements of its environmental education program. HMC Architects and PESD agreed that the site’s multiple stormwater management systems should be within the visual, tactile, and auditory reach of students in order to enhance the learning process and reinforce PESD’s nature and science education curriculum. Hands-on and real-world observation activities with exploration of the impact the raindrop has on ecosystems and ecosystem diversity became the guiding theme. Early in the planning process, the design team used a series of eco-charrettes to explore the integration of bioretention as the medium for delivering that curriculum.

Once the PESD design team set its goals and envisioned Clearwater Elementary School as a showcase of stormwater conservation goals coupled with curriculum and community outreach activities, HMC Architects carefully choreographed the design of each outdoor space on campus to focus on stormwater awareness through the use of bioswales, planter boxes, cisterns, campus gardens, and green walls to capture, store, and reuse the raindrops. Taken together, these stormwater conservation strategies promote regional water quality, while creating rich ecosystem habitats that convey to our future leaders the value of knowing how to innovate, build, and communicate each water conservation strategy. They also create durable, achievable, and repeatable examples of Low Impact Development (LID) solutions for new schools.

Pathways to zero-net water and energy
PESD’s Governing School Board sees water sensitivity and energy independence as part of its overall sustainability goal and are also very interested in green technologies and have expressed their interest in photovoltaics (PV) to generate on-site electricity as another means in the pursuit of zero-net energy (ZNE). Equally important to the board members is forming socially and culturally strong foundations through community gardens and community outreach events that focus on sustainability in support of their goal of making PESD a top choice for parents in the region.

How do you pay for sustainable strategies?
Implementation of sustainable development in a manner that supports curriculum and true student engagement can be financially challenging. So it requires school districts to think creatively and seek alternative funding sources to actually execute these strategies. Vincent Ponce and Tina Daigneault, PESD’s Superintendent and Chief Business Official respectively, teamed up with HMC Architects to pursue the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Drought Response Outreach Program for Schools (DROPS) Grant (3). The DROPS Grant recognizes projects that both conserve water and increase student awareness of water resource sustainability. PESD’s program was awarded $982,138 to implement stormwater and water conservation strategies at Clearwater Elementary School.

Although the DROPS Grant is no longer available, the Proposition 1 Stormwater Grant Program provides a similar opportunity for districts to enhance stormwater capture and reuse solutions.

What about the rest of the district?
PESD is taking full advantage of available funds to make Clearwater Elementary School’s program a reality. However, tackling water conservation is equally important at existing facilities, and PESD has taken a number of measures to reduce water use at those sites too. PESD has eliminated Water Day—a day kids used to play on the fields under sprinkled water—and is also reassessing its ornamental grass areas and organizing a district-wide mulch program to help reduce evaporation and improve water retention. And the year-end deep cleaning of furniture has shifted from using high pressure water spray to sanitary wipe-downs.

PESD has also instituted a neighborhood campaign informing the community on how to be environmental stewards by reporting over-watering, broken irrigation lines, and acts of vandalism that affect water conservation. This campaign is crucial because PESD experiences vandalism targeting sprinkler heads and water meters several times a year, and it comes at a cost to both PESD and the environment. Water running uncontrollably is no longer an option so PESD has invested in smart water shut-off valves to reduce unwarranted water expenditures and is also looking at ways to improve Wi-Fi connectivity to these smart meters so that response time to leaks is diminished. The campaign also helps with shifting community perception, ensuring that “golden” lawns are not attributed to PESD shortcomings or operations neglect, but rather reinforce the deliberate message that PESD is committed to mitigating the effects of the drought in its community. While initially concerned with the harsh appearance of the golden lawns, Superintendent Vincent Ponce saw it as a necessary and proactive step in a community of green lawns. It’s hard to balance golden versus green lawns, and you don’t want to lose your asset, but Clearwater Elementary School is now the standard bearer for change, representative of what the community can expect in future school development.

Proposition 39 funds for energy efficiency upgrades
Along with the DROPS grant, PESD was awarded Proposition 39 funds to replace energy consuming light fixtures with more efficient LED lights and incorporate motion sensors and energy management tools. Some school sites will receive high performance windows to further reduce energy demand and operational cost. The combined effort sets a positive trend to improve school operations and advance PESD toward meeting the 2030 zero-net energy mandates.

How to get started
Environmental literacy is essential to making a lasting impression. As part of the DROPS grant, the Inland Empire Water Keeper Project will provide teachers throughout the region with access to high quality environmental education resources through a series of K-12 California academic content standards focused on water conservation and watershed revitalization activities using their own campuses as classrooms.

Proposition 39 funds are available to every California school district for the planning and construction of energy efficiency projects. Many public utility companies have no-cost or low-cost tools and staff available to help school districts gather and organize the historic data necessary to apply for the funding.

For more information, contact Tina Daigneault.


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  • Clearwater Elementary School