California hospitals are reducing their nonessential water use as a severe drought stretches on and threatens much of the West.
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 water-intensive 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 was about 145,000 gallons per bed, roughly the same as the annual consumption of a four-person household.
Yet healthcare leaders were not ready to share contingency plans in the event that the drought is the new normal. A California Hospital Association spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Common measures that healthcare providers are taking include installing low-flow plumbing in restrooms, reducing how often they pressure-wash outdoor common areas and changing their 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, which operates 38 hospital campuses in California, Oregon and Hawaii, committed in February to shifting 50% of its power needs to renewable energy sources at a cost of $35 million per 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.
When Stanford Health Care commissioned a study of its water use, it found that 35% was used in bathrooms, 28% for industrial processes like medical vacuum pumps, and 16% in patient exam rooms, where doctors are washing their hands or using autoclave sterilizers. Moving to more sustainable steam sterilizers has helped save 10 million gallons of water per year, while upgrading its vacuum pumps has saved another 2 million.
The two-hospital, Palo Alto-based group 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.
Many of the suggestions for reducing water use have come from employees, said Krisanne Hanson, director of sustainability at Stanford Medicine.
“We've campaigned that if you see a leak, there's one number to call,” Hanson said. “From the front-line staff to the daily operations group, it's been a very integrated approach.”
Sutter Health in Sacramento has consolidated laundry services for its 25 hospitals into a single LEED-certified facility. It estimates that it's saving 12 million gallons of water per year, or enough for 54,250 showers, according to a spokeswoman.
In addition, Sutter says using low-flow shower heads, faucets and toilets has helped reduce water consumption 27% at Solano Medical Center, Vallejo; 16% at Davis (Calif.) Hospital and 13% at Amador Hospital, Jackson.
New building projects are being designed with conservation at a big priority. Both Stanford and Sutter are building new Bay Area campuses that emphasize sustainability.
In a crisis, many health systems have their own reserves they can tap.
Still, no one interviewed for this story expressed concern that the situation would reach that 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,” Kaiser's Hemstreet said. “I think it would be tremendous overreaction that we have to worry about hospitals running out of water.”