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May 2009

A huge success for UNC

On May 11, we celebrated an extraordinary achievement and recognized a wonderful example of teamwork in action -- and I'm not just talking about the Tar Heel men's basketball team's visit to the White House that day.

While Mayor Kevin Foy and I were in Washington, here in Chapel Hill other town and gown leaders gathered on a drizzly morning to mark the completion of our new reclaimed water system. All present applauded the project as a great collaboration with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority for the public good that will have tremendous benefits for the environment.

So what is reclaimed water and why are people so excited about what is flowing in these new purple pipes? Reclaimed water is wastewater that has been purified to a level suitable for further use but not for drinking. By using reclaimed water instead of drinking water in the cooling towers of our chilled water plants, we reduce our demand for water from OWASA by 30 percent. In the near future, we plan to use reclaimed water for toilet flushing and irrigation.

The reclaimed water system is a huge success six years in the making. It reduces the chance of the community running short of water during drought season. It saves money because OWASA can defer expansion of treatment and supply facilities. And it is environmentally friendly in two ways, protecting the water quality in Jordan Lake and reducing greenhouse gas emissions because less energy will be spent treating and delivering water to UNC.

The project is also a great example of just how much can be accomplished when we work together. While the university has put the largest investment into the project and will be its primary user, the project also received funding through federal and state grants given to OWASA from the Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

We built the system in partnership with OWASA, whose contractors laid the pipe up to campus, where we took over the construction. Eventually, OWASA could expand the system beyond our campus to serve other customers. And the system benefits the whole community, not just the university, by cutting down on the demand for drinking water.

But using reclaimed water is just one way Carolina has been making its campus a more sustainable place to live and work. I invite all of you to take a campus walking tour created by our Sustainability Office ( to see what else we've been doing to turn Carolina green. Visit one of our green roofs at the Rams Head Center, Carrington Hall or the FedEx Global Education Center and see how we're cutting back on runoff and reusing rainwater for irrigation or toilet flushing.

Hooker Field No. 3 also collects rainwater and uses it for irrigation. And solar panels top Morrison Residence Hall, providing energy to heat up to 60 percent of the building's hot water. See how our dining halls turn food waste into compost and recycle used cooking oil so that it can be transformed into fuel. Take a look at all those recycling bins filled with items that won't go to the Orange County landfill.

Our faculty are internationally recognized leaders for their innovative environmental research. Recently, Chemistry Professor Tom Meyer led a coalition of scientists who received a $17.5 million federal stimulus grant intended to create jobs resulting from research on low-cost and efficient solar fuels production by artificial photosynthesis. And I'm just as proud of our students and employees for what they do to make sure that we are practicing sustainability in how we live and work on campus.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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