Water at McGill

By Ingrid Birker

Water filling station

In May 2011, when the accumulated rainfall of 102 mm (three times the amount of rain that fell last May) caused the Richelieu River to breach its banks and force over 1,000 people to leave their homes, McGill  installed six high-volume water dispensing and refilling stations. Known as “BYOB”, these large, blue, mobile water kiosks were bought from WaterFillz with the money raised by Class Action 2011. This proudly marks McGill as the first place in the province where you can get municipal water easily rather than searching for a tap in a bistro or café or awkwardly trying to refill your bottle in a bathroom sink. Ready to use, the BYOB is hooked up to a power supply and promotes the consumption of municipal water, which is tested more frequently and rigorously than bottled water. Bottled water is heavily marketed as a smart and healthful choice, but the truth is that it is no purer or safer than local tap water and is much more expensive. At McGill the new BYOB lets us carry a refillable water container and confidently know that we can find six locations near our work, class, or recreational areas where we can easily refill it. This wonderful “blue” addition to the landscape will help McGill reduce the consumption of bottled water on campus — making it a truly “green” initiative. Bottled water creates enormous quantities of waste, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills, and each litre of bottled water requires 3 litres of water to produce.  It was not hard to imagine the need for easily accessible drinking water during the hot week of Convocation ceremonies and I spent a few hours talking to people filling up at the BYOB stationed outside McLennan Library. The overall consensus was positive.

This easy access to tap water is just one way that the University’s new Sustainability Office plans to make the campus greener and more environmentally responsible. According to a small travelling exhibit that will be in the Redpath Museum for the summer of 2011, McGill is also committed to updating infrastructure, and installing water-saving fixtures such as low-flow toilets and shower heads. Even the traditional lawns of Kentucky bluegrass have been modified by xeriscaping and ground-covering plants that need less (or almost no) water. One of the most impressive examples of this ecologically sound landscaping is a major project that turned the dreary walkway toward Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building into a green space that attracts wildlife (insert photo below). It uses only hardy local perennials such as Sticky geranium and native prairie grasses that have never been watered!


Photo credit: Sam Hummel. Downloaded with permission from the website of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, http://www.aashe.org/blog/energy-conservation-green-landscaping-mcgill-university.

Before the BYOB arrived in May 2011, the most prominent “water” feature on McGill’s landscape was the Three Bares fountain in the shady dell under the eastern wall of the Redpath Museum. Erected in 1933 to the tune of $2,050 (a large sum during extraordinarily tight financial times), this romantic sculpture of three nude male figures placed above Percy Nobb’s “pond” and holding a conch shell aloft has hosted many  receptions, gatherings, open-air pubs, and student protests. “It was the scene of outdoor concerts in the ’60s where the blue smoke of the counterculture was so thick you could get high just walking by the area!” recounts Emeritus Professor of Architecture Derek Drummond, BArch’62.  “More important than the sculpture is the shape of the space,” says Drummond, “giving it a sense of enclosure and the feeling of an outdoor room”.

Sculpted in marble by the artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the white figures gleam and sparkle all summer long as water dribbles down their flanks. Gertrude went on to found the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York and was even featured in the 1921 issue of Vanity Fair as a Woman of the Year with Marie Sklowdowska Curie (who won the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband for their discovery of radium in 1903).

The sculpture has gone by other names: the Friendship Fountain, the Whitney Fountain, as well as the Three Graces. And it has seen the campus change bit by bit; the great elm trees that once lined its main avenue have died, generations of students have moved on with their lives, and McGill moves on with water conservation and sustainabililty measures.

Do you have an idea for making McGill more sustainable? You can apply for a grant from the new sponsorship program entitled McGill Sustainablity Project Fund (SPF).  This is an exciting way for members of the McGill community to contribute and be involved. The SPF makes funds available for selected projects, to provide the help and support you need to achieve the goals of your project from which the entire community can benefit. They accept and review proposals on an ongoing basis. For more info about SPF and McGill’s sustainability efforts, check out  the McGill Office of Sustainability webpage, and take time to visit the “Water is Life” exhibit. It will be located in the entrance hall of the Redpath Museum this summer (open daily 9h-17h and every Sunday 12h-17h) and will then move through different buildings around campus for the next two years. One of the best parts of this exhibit is a life-size toilet stall door equipped with coloured markers so that participants can scribble, doodle or write their own water saving tips for everyone else to see and learn from.

And remember, make a pledge to not drink bottled water when tap water is available, (especially if you live or work near a BYOB).  Stay cool and wet.

Three bares

McGill Architecture professor Percy Nobb's artistic rendering of the proposed pond for the Three Bares fountain.

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