Water Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution

Feedloader (Clickability)

In 2007, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) was preparing to open the interactive Sant Ocean Hall exhibit when its Greening Task Force decided to investigate how the museum could care for the bodies of water closest to home.

Washington, D.C. is flanked by the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, which empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Not all water put down storm drains goes to a water treatment facility; when rainwater on the National Mall exceeds a quarter of an inch, the local facilities reach their capacity and whatever else washes into the storm drains winds up in the Chesapeake, untreated. Oil, plastic and fertilizers are just a few common pollutants funneled into the ocean in this way.

Eric Hollinger, co-chair of the museum's Greening Task Force, began asking himself: "How can we walk the walk and try to help protect oceans from the potential pollutants we might be generating from our property?" The museum commissioned a water reclamation study by the Smithsonian's Office of Engineering Design and Construction (OEDC), which made recommendations, estimated to cost around $4.75 million in all, for how NMNH could conserve water and be more ocean friendly. This set off a string of initiatives related to water conservation, some of which will soon be adopted across the entire Smithsonian Institution.

  • Storm Drain Decals: The Smithsonian museums attract millions of visitors from far and wide every year, many of whom don't know what happens to NMNH's storm water. Hollinger reports that before the opening of the Sant Ocean Hall, "many were using the storm drains as trash cans." So Hollinger's team—along with the D.C. Department of the Environment—put decals by all the storm drains on their property, specifically labeling which river or ocean the drain's contents filtered into. While this may seem too obvious to have an impact, like the light switch decals I wrote about a few weeks back, it has met with public approval and has been adopted across the Smithsonian Institution. It is difficult to measure any difference in storm drain water quality since implementing the decals, but Hollinger says he has not seen much misuse of the labeled storm drains.
  • Underground Water Storage Unit: One of the primary recommendations of the water reclamation study was to install an underground water storage tank that could collect rainwater and condensation produced from the heating and cooling systems in the museum. By using stored water for irrigation and air conditioning, the study estimated a savings of 10.7 percent of the potable water used annually by the Natural History Museum. The tank is currently collecting water and will soon be routed into the museum's irrigation systems.
  • Green Roof: The National Zoo has recently built a green roof for their new Elephant Trails exhibit, but NMNH is the first of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall to consider building a vegetated roof atop their stately, century-old building. According to the water reclamation study, the green roof could cover up to 35,600 square feet and reduce runoff by up to 5.2 percent. NMNH is currently awaiting proposals for the roof.
  • Interactive "Ocean Portal": To complement the Sant Ocean Hall, NMNH launched the Ocean Portal, a web interface that allows kids and adults to learn all about the oceans. The Web site features stories on recent oceanographic research, as well as information on how to help preserve the oceans.​

NMNH occupies one of the Smithsonian's oldest buildings. It covers 1.3 million square feet and houses 1200 employees and volunteers, not to mention the continuous stream (and sometimes flood) of visitors to the museum. The museum's exhibits and research are aimed at connecting museum-goers to both land and sea. Now their water conservation practices reflect that purpose.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.