Water conservation could help the university save thousands annually.

The University of California (UC) Merced has partnered with a start-up company in the Silicon Valley to use a new technology that will help the university better track its water usage.

The university hopes that the technology will also help create a water-saving culture on campus.

This summer, the university bought 40 Aquacue Barnacles for about $40,000 and attached them to the 40 water meters around campus. An Aquacue Barnacle is a device that monitors water usage and tracks data in real time.

The sophisticated devices are produced by Aquacue Inc., a startup company based in Los Gatos.

In the long term, the technology will help the university comply with two state laws, including the Water Conservation Act of 2009, which sets the goal of reducing the per-capita urban water use by 20 percent by 2020, said Jim Genes, special assistant to the vice chancellor of administration at UC Merced.

For now, the university is using the technology as an opportunity to create more awareness among students and get them into a habit of saving water.

The campus began a water conservation contest, “UC Merced Water Battle 2011,” a week ago at the Valley Terraces residence halls, where there are nine water meters — one for each hall.

The competition will go through the end of this month to see which hall saves the most water per person.

The hall that’s able to conserve the most water will win a pizza party, and $1,000 to donate to a local nonprofit organization, said Genes. There are about 600 students participating in the contest.

The contest is being organized by the Alliance to Save Energy’s Green Campus, a student group, UC Merced sustainability leaders, Engineers for a Sustainable World, another student group, and Aquacue Inc.

“The competition has been good,” said Martin Figueroa, a junior at UC Merced, who’s part of Green Campus. “Now the question is, how do we increase our visibility and awareness?”

Students are using social media, such as Facebook, to motivate students about the contest.

To reach more students, outreach efforts have to go beyond social media. “There’s only so much you can do online,” said Jared Calinisan, a UC Merced junior involved in organizing the contest.

Calinisan said he also has gone around talking to student groups on campus. He’s been sharing tips with students to help get them into the habit of saving water, “for them to establish a water conservation culture,” he said.

Figueroa said they will go to each dormitory, especially the ones that are using the most water, and share water-saving techniques with the student residents.

Jasmine McClain, a junior at UC Merced helping with the effort, said the water-saving habits that students will form can continue later in their lives. “If they practice this now, it will become a natural habit for them,” she said.

The campus is already saving water, thanks to technology that alerts facility maintenance workers to places that are using a lot of water or where there could be leaks. On Friday, seven leaky toilets were identified throughout the Valley Terraces dormitories.

The toilets, which were wasting about 150 gallons of water an hour — or 1,314,000 gallons a year — have now been fixed, and will save the university about $4,000 in water costs.

Genes said energy conservation contests in college dormitories have been around for a while, but water conservation contests are coming up in the world. “Dormitory competitions about water are becoming more popular and more common,” he said.

UC Merced hopes to have a campuswide water-saving competition next year. The university uses about 64 million gallons of water every year.

(c)2011 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.). Visit the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.) at www.mercedsunstar.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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