"What the Pros Know"

What the Pros Know

Water, water everywhere inspires sustainability director.

Kate (O’Brien) Keppen ’05 was named Ursinus’s new Sustainability Director in October 2016. A double major in environmental studies and English at Ursinus, Keppen graduated from the University of Delaware in 2007 with a master’s degree in environmental and energy policy. Before coming home to Ursinus, she worked for six years at the Berks County Conservation District as the county’s watershed coordinator, working to protect the county’s streams and drinking water supplies.

“I’m a water specialist,” explains Keppen. “But when we look at protecting our water, we really have to look at what we are doing on our land.” Here, Keppen shares how she plans to make Ursinus more sustainable, and also offers her expertise on how we can be better friends with the planet too:

The Meaning of Sustainability

When you first hear the term sustainability, everybody thinks it means being environmentally friendly, being green. But sustainability is more than that. It really takes a look at three different aspects of our society; it can be represented as a triangle: Yes, one angle is the environment. We want to stop depleting our resources so future generations can continue to live like we are. The second angle is economics, and the third angle is society. In explaining this triangle, I use this example with students: Recycling is great, but if we are going broke as a society doing that, that is not sustainable in the purest sense of the word. We need to have a robust economy, a fair and flourishing society while benefiting our planet at the same time.

Sustainability and Ursinus

We have a Sustainability Fellows program here that I supervise. The fellows research, design, and implement outreach projects within the campus community. Some of the projects the students have worked on are energy use on campus, water awareness, recycling, and even working in our community farm. The idea is for the students to look holistically at life here, and see how it can be made better. The students drive this program, I am just here to guide them. They develop communication and leadership skills, along with project management skills that will serve them after their life here at Ursinus.

Waste Not, Want Not

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave Ursinus an award as one of only 13 organizations that have diverted the most amount of waste away from landfills. We do this by bringing our waste to a facility where it is turned into energy instead of going to a landfill. Wismer on Wheels, an on-campus community service organization, also keeps food out of landfills while helping to fight hunger. Volunteers collect and package leftover food that was never touched and donate it to a local food bank.

Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to…

I grew up along the Perkiomen Creek and a lot of my childhood time was spent with friends hopping on rocks, falling in the water, getting wet. When I started to learn about all the threats to our water supply—that especially hit home to me.

Many areas of our country gets their drinking water from surface water like lakes, rivers and streams. We are contaminating these sources every day. I know we need our homes, and our shopping centers, and our hospitals, and schools. But when we build, we create a ground that is mostly concrete and asphalt. This means that water that falls from the sky cannot be absorbed into the ground but instead is picking up pollution—pet waste, fertilizer, oil—and then it is flowing into our streams through our storm drainage systems.

Plant A Tree

Trees and plants prevent runoff pollution. When it rains, they are such good sponges, allowing the water to get into the ground, instead of flowing over the land. This water is now ground water that trees and plants use to drink. Ursinus has a tree care committee that evaluates the health of our present trees, as well as replants new trees on campus.

The Ursinus Way

My goal as the sustainability director is to set a culture here that being sustainable is just something that we do—it is what we are at Ursinus. This type of culture has to be student-led. Sustainability fellows are going to play a huge role in achieving this goal—and we are appealing to not just environmental studies majors. This is a program that crosses boundaries—English majors, gender studies majors, and biology majors. Everyone can work for sustainability through this program.

Water Conservation at Home

The EPA has really tried to make water conservation easier and more intuitive. They have branded certain products—our toilets, our washing machine—Waterwise. These appliances don’t use as much water as conventional appliances do. But the easiest way to conserve water is by planting trees and plants. When plants and trees absorb rainwater, they eventually transpire the water from their leaves and roots and put water vapor back into the air so it eventually precipitates again. This is how the water cycle works. When you do plant something, it should be native to the area. It should be plants and trees that are used to our long dry summers and our harsh winters and can survive without a lot of care and watering. The Redbud Tree is a favorite of mine. It gets these beautiful heart-shaped purple leaves in the spring. Other plants that are great for this area are the Joe-Pye Weed and the Columbine plant. So plant a tree to conserve water … just plant the right one.

Do you have a skill or expertise that readers can learn from? Email ucmag@ursinus.edu with the subject line: What the Pros Know.