Campus lawns will survive, not thrive

The University of Utah’s lawns have a new look—and it comes with a purpose.

Green grass is giving way to a brownish-yellow hue as the U plays its part to conserve water amidst our current severe drought. This shift in the appearance of campus is an intentional change, with limited water being prioritized away from grass and towards trees, shrubs and planters.

Information released by the U.S. Drought Monitor places 98% of the state of Utah as experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions (these conditions are the Drought Monitor’s most serious categories). A trio of executive orders from Gov. Spencer J. Cox has been issued to restrict water usage in the spirit of conservancy.

In accordance with these statewide and city mandates, the university’s watering windows have been reduced to twice per week in each area. Programmed watering does not happen before 8 p.m. or after 10 a.m. A small number of exceptions have been made to allow for the watering necessary to establish the root system in newer landscaping and other sensitive areas on campus.

Water efficiency is a long-term and ongoing focus in the Facilities Management office. The university has seen an 18% drop in total water usage since 2018, which amounts to around 200 million gallons per year. In one of the fastest-growing and driest states in the nation, these savings are especially impactful. Water efficiency is outpacing growth at the U, allowing for resiliency in expansion.

“From 2018 to 2019 to 2020, we’ve had a sustained drop in water usage,” said Grounds Maintenance Supervisor John Walker. “This is encouraging because what we’ve done in that time is data-driven. We’re going to use that and continue to get better. We’re changing the trend.”

New buildings and their accompanying landscapes are being built with an eye for water conservation. The Campus Planning team in Planning, Design and Construction helps to find the balance between water-wise landscaping and areas with grass and trees that allow students, faculty, staff and visitors to be part of the campus experience. This long-term planning for a water-wise campus leads into the work that Grounds Maintenance does to manage the plants on campus. Both Campus Planning and Grounds Maintenance have been driven by this conservational attitude for years, helping the university to weather droughts in the past.

“We’re not just on campus trying to keep the grass green,” Walker said. “We’re really focused on what we can do to make sustainable improvements to the environment that will conserve water and resources. Our crew has all taken to the goal of having an environmentally conscious campus. It’s awesome to watch them take that culture forward as they do their work. I can’t talk enough about how much they do every day to find leaks, to fix systems and to continue to improve the university campus.”

Smart technology helps the Grounds Maintenance crew make the most of the university’s water. A new irrigation system, called WeatherTRAK, provides a continuous source of data that drives efficiency. WeatherTRAK uses weather info to adjust programmed irrigation and allows the Grounds Maintenance crew to identify leaks and track how water is being delivered across campus. This system was installed in 2018-19.

The university has committed $500K in funds this year to combat the drought and expedite water efficiency. These funds have been provided through different sources in Facilities, including the Facilities Revolving Sustainable Fund. This funding source currently allows the university to reinvest in high-impact sustainability projects each year from the cost savings of past efficiency projects, creating a true case study in “paying it forward.”

These funds will allow for upgrades to the irrigation system to make it as efficient as possible, including the expansion of controls and adding and upgrading flow sensors that will aid in detecting issues. Other adjustments being made include upgrading sprinkler heads and installing master valves that can quickly stop water in the event of a major leak. Hydrozoning—the practice of splitting irrigation to match plants with similar water needs—will be a continued effort.

There’s no quick fix when it comes to saving water, especially in a drought. The nature of these types of large infrastructure projects means that the university doesn’t have the luxury of time. These projects will occur over the remainder of summer and into the early fall and their benefits will be felt in the coming years. Projects happening right now are making the university more resilient.

In the meantime, brown grass will become the look on campus over the summer and into the fall this year. Although grass in this state is typically referred to as “dead grass,” that’s not the most accurate description. A better term is actually “dormant grass.” As water becomes scarce grass will fall into a stage of dormancy to conserve water and nutrients. Grass is very resilient. Cooler temperatures and hopefully improved water conditions in the fall should result in the grass bouncing back.

As you walk through campus, brown grass won’t be the only noticeable landscape feature. Researchers and students in the College of Architecture and Planning’s Center for Ecological Planning and Design are using campus as a living lab. A Landscape Lab near the Williams Building in Research Park and a Pollinator Garden near the College of Architecture and Planning are home to a variety of native water-wise plants that provide areas of color and life.

As grass survives instead of thrives, the focus for the Grounds Maintenance team is the health of trees and shrubs on campus. The University of Utah is part of the State Arboretum of Utah. The U’s main campus has more than 12,000 trees, including 13 “Big Trees” designated by the Utah Register of Big Trees. Walker and the Grounds Maintenance crew are committed to getting the trees the water they need through planning and attention.

Faculty, staff and students can assist with our water-efficiency efforts. As is to be expected on such a large campus, mechanical failures happen in the irrigation system. If you notice a broken or rogue sprinkler, watering during the day, or other concerns, please let Facilities’ Customer Service Center know by calling 801-581-7221 or tagging @UofUFM on Twitter with a photo and location of the issue and the hashtag #Usavewater.