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A clean start
How students from SCAD's Sustainability Dept saved the beachside showers on Tybee
Shots from a recent public presentation on Tybee Island by representatives of SCAD's Sustainable Design classes

If you get less sand in your car after a trip to the beach on Tybee, be sure to thank one of the students from SCAD professor Verena Paepcke–Hjeltness’ Sustainable Design class — because they found a way to save the beachside showers.

Following concerns about the ongoing effects of excessive water consumption on the Floridan Aquifer, including a state mandate to reduce water consumption in the Savannah area by 7 million gallons per day, the showers were going to be cut off until Hjeltness’ SUST 384 class created an environmentally friendly and economical solution.

During a Global Warming Teach–in last February, Hjeltness met Tybee City Councilman Paul Wolff, who was giving a presentation at the event. Wolff mentioned the problems with the showers during his talk, and after a brief conversation, Hjeltness, who was instrumental in pushing for the creation of SCAD’s new sustainability program, said she and her students might be able to help.

What began as a small project to design showers that could capture and use rainwater, quickly grew into a comprehensive, four–phase concept that will address the showers, renovations of the public restrooms on North Beach, and the future addition of solar panels, all of which will substantially reduce the resources used by beach visitors.

Wolff is excited about the possibilities of the project and during a meeting with the students told them how meaningful the project could be to the area.

“Even though you’re just going to be here for four years,” he told them, “you can leave a legacy that will far outlast your tenure in Savannah.”

The project was broken up into phases to help it develop more quickly, and make it more reasonable financially for the island.

“We decided that we just wanted to offer one big project divided by different phases to allow Tybee to select what they wanted to do when and where,” Hjeltness explains. Cost was one of the major obstacles Tybee had cited during previous projects it had done with SCAD students in the past.

The first phase in moving toward greater water conservation includes installing water aerators and low flush toilets that use rainwater rather than pulling water from the system. It also includes some other waterless solutions like putting turf on the boardwalk to help brush away sand as people walk, and landscaping using indigenous plants that require less water.

Even before the design process began for the students, there were legal and political complications that needed to be addressed including the aesthetic impact of the project and state law regarding potable water use.

“I actually met with the class on their first day, and explained some of the political realities,” says Wolff. “Ideally, you’d have a cistern to capture rain water and then use gravity to feed water into the shower, but if you have anything higher than the sand dunes, people on the landward side are gonna be raising hell about it interfering with their view.”

The students dealt with that by creating several plans involving a lined cargo container being sunk into the ground in order to store the captured water, and a mechanism to pump it back up to the toilets and showers. That is all part of the latter phases of the project.

The potable water regulations proved a little trickier. State law dictates that water in public showers must be drinkable, which means that captured rainwater can’t be used without being filtered first.

“Even if we capture rain water it has to be filtered enough to be drinkable, which really adds expense and extra steps to what otherwise might be a pretty simple process,” Wolff explains.

The solution to that problem was found by students in the form of living filtration system, utilizing plants as a means of purifying the water.

The second phase of the program will involve relocating the showers closer to bathroom area, which will consolidate space, allow easier access to the rainwater collection system, and simplify the design of the area. Both the first and second phases include outreach components that will help educate the general public about water conservation.

The class project also includes an educational campaign, featuring a cartoon character named Salty the Sea Turtle, who will help educate visitors and residents alike about the virtues of sustainable practices. The hope is that once people know about the sustainable practices they are a part of when at the beach, they will also start to use incorporate the same practices into their home life as well, creating additional water conservation locally and beyond.

The bathrooms at the North Beach use about 37,000 gallons of water per year, and while the islands average annual rainfall is more than sufficient to take care of that, but tying the awareness of the weather to water use, Hjeltness and her students hope the public will be more conscientious of the water they use.

“We applied the four pillars of sustainability to this project,” Hjeltness says. “Be environmentally friendly, foster the economy, be sure to involve the community, and then we also wanted to educate on water conservation.”

The economic pillar provided another valuable lesson for students in the class, who helped research upcoming grants that can be used to fund the later phases of the overhaul, which will help create jobs locally.

“Within the next two years, they can start applying for these grants which will help finance the idea and we can create jobs with that and help bring more tourism to the city,” Hjeltness explains.

Although the scope of the project will necessitate it being one that could take several years, Wolff is glad to have a plan of action laid out because time is of the essence, and inaction is not an option.

“If we don’t do something,” he says. “We’re gonna end up with much more expensive and probably temporary solution to our long term water issue.”

The Savannah area consumes about 21 million gallons of water per day, and according to a mandate from the State’s Environmental Protection Division, we must reduce water use by 7 million gallons per day in 2010.

“The City will have to add surface water to the very clean Floridan Aquifer water that we’re using, which is not really a bad thing, but it’s going to cost money,” explains Hjeltness, whose next project will include working with Savannah’s Water and Sewer Bureau to find possible conservation solutions.

“If the City would just cut down on the water consumption, which isn’t a big problem except that people don’t know about it — then we might not have to use the surface water.”