Going with the Flow: Financially Managing UBC’s Water System

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Water is a crucial resource at UBC, for basic human needs and to support research and operations. The simple act of turning on a tap to access a safe and reliable water supply is something students, faculty, and staff depend on each and every day.

Although UBC isn’t technically a municipality, in many ways it operates like one — maintaining a vast infrastructure and supplying our own services, including waste management, energy generation and distribution, and infrastructure development. Managing our water alone is an intricate process involving staff members from our finance departments and partners from across UBC’s VP Finance & Operations portfolio (VPFO). These individuals work in concert every day to ensure the university has a clean, safe, and sustainable resource on tap — by procuring, securing, testing, delivering, financially managing, and safely disposing of the university’s water. Through this work we enable excellence at UBC, by making sure water is available to support world-class research, to heat and cool our buildings, to water our campus living lab, and to be ready to drink.

One of the VPFO’s strategic priorities is delivering on systems renewal — ensuring we have the right resources in place to succeed, and plans for maintaining and enhancing the resources to ensure they provide value into the future. Fortunately, a talented team of financial experts and accountants within the VPFO work together with the plumbers, engineers, and technicians to ensure a seamless, well-managed water system that continues to get better.

Wait... we buy our water?

Interestingly, UBC’s water is actually purchased from Metro Vancouver by the University Endowment Lands (UEL), which in turn sells it to the university. About 45 per cent of the water that arrives on campus is used by UBC itself, for academic and administrative campus services. Another 20 per cent is sold at market rates to ancillary services such as Student Housing and Hospitality Services, UBC Food Services, and the UBC Bookstore. The remaining 35 per cent is sold at market rates to external customers on campus, like homeowners, strata corporations, companies, and TRIUMF — UBC’s friendly neighbourhood particle accelerator.

The finance team in Energy & Water Services bills these entities for other utilities too — electricity, natural gas, thermal energy, and use of the sanitary sewer system. Providing these services to the academic campus at well below market rates enables the savings to be reinvested in teaching, research and infrastructure, to support innovative new methods of learning and avenues of discovery.

But billing for water use is just the beginning of the important work done by UBC’s financial team.

Finance and sustainability

“We’re continuously looking at how to reduce water and energy consumption,” says Matt Boydston, portfolio finance director for the VPFO. Sustainability is integrated into every aspect of life and work at UBC, and it’s top-of-mind for the finance and strategic planning teams too. That means that when the finance teams create their five-year financial plans, water-use trends and conservation targets are key considerations.

“We have to build in those factors because things like reduction of water consumption are already part of our budget,” notes Dee Kaila, a Certified General Accountant by training who has worked at UBC for 27 years and currently serves as the associate director of finance for Energy & Water Services.

Dee was involved in the recent conversion of the university’s aging gas-fired steam heating system to a much more efficient hot water system, an epic project that began in 2011 and was completed in 2017. The collaboration between virtually every unit within VPFO, and many more, involved replacing 14 kilometres of 90-year-old steam piping and connecting 160 buildings to the far more efficient system. The transition was a key factor in reducing UBC’s absolute water use by a staggering 50 per cent since 2000, despite the campus expanding by leaps and bounds. Much more than a drop in the bucket.

Dee notes that business cases for capital projects use a 30-year time horizon, an approach that helps the university invest in ways that will enhance the campus well into the future. “We also recognize that as systems get older, we have to plan for upgrades and replacement. That’s built into the model.” She adds that capital projects are monitored closely over time to understand how actual conservation levels compare to the targets they set. “If the business case said it was supposed to do X per cent in savings, we want to know — did it actually do it?”

Dee adds that collaboration with other units, within VPFO and beyond, is the key to success. “When you look at accountants working with engineers, sometimes it’s not exactly the greatest fit,” she adds. “But you know, they’re a great team to work with.”

The VPFO is responsible for stewardship of UBC’s physical and financial assets, including all facilities as well as the university budget and endowment. The services provided by the 1200+ individuals who report to the portfolio enable UBC’s excellence in learning and research.

In addition to Energy & Water Services, teams from VPFO’s finance departments, as well as Safety & Risk Services and Building Operations, are critical to keeping our water systems flowing. Read the full feature on Water at UBC on the VPFO website.