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Campus continues to be water wise in 2022

Assuming the trends continue, at the close of this fiscal year, the U will have measured its lowest water consumption in 10 years.

As Utahns brace for another hot summer, water conservation is top of mind across the state.

The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies 100% of the state as experiencing “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions—the most serious categories. So the Facilities team at the University of Utah is magnifying campus water conservation efforts to make campus more water wise.

Thanks to creative measures implemented back in 2018, the U has decreased outdoor water usage by 22% from 2019 through July 2021. About $1M of additional irrigation and grounds improvements are currently underway.

Utah lawmakers recently passed H.B. 121, legislation requiring state agencies to decrease water use by 25% by 2026. To learn more about the bill and the U’s water conservation efforts, we sat down with John Walker, grounds supervisor and Chris Benson, sustainability and energy associate director in U Facilities to answer some questions.

How much water does the University of Utah consume each year?

Benson: The short answer is, campus covers more than 1,500 acres and we use a lot of water at the U. The University consumes less than 0.1% of total water usage in the state of Utah. But the areas where we use the most water may surprise you.

Most of the University’s water is used not by landscaping but by people. On an average weekday when school is in session, campus (including hospitals and clinics) can host more than 60,000 users each day. Those faculty, staff, students and visitors consume water when they use the restroom, shower, wash their hands, refill a drinking container and in a variety of other ways outside of landscaping.

Using data from the 2020 Census, we know that Salt Lake City’s population is now around 200,000 residents. So those 60,000 daily campus visitors are about 30% of the city’s population but consume about 10-15% of the city’s water each year.

Assuming the trends continue, at the close of this fiscal year the University will have measured its lowest water consumption in 10 years.

What are the new rules or restrictions that H.B 121 mandates?

Walker: The restrictions are very similar to the guidelines released by Gov. Spencer Cox last year. This bill really formalized those restrictions for all public agencies and provided funding for anyone in the state to switch from sod to more water-wise landscaping. Details on that first-of-its-kind rebate will be released this fall, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources website.

The U put the governor’s measures into place last year and achieved additional water use reductions. This spring and summer, we are fine-tuning our processes so we can surpass the overall goals of what H.B. 121 is asking public agencies to accomplish. 

What tools or resources does campus have in place to monitor water usage?

Walker: One really cool tool U Facilities Landscape Maintenance team implemented on campus since 2018 is WeatherTRAK, a smart irrigation system. The system organizes campus into multiple manageable areas (hydro zones). Local sensors monitor when it rains and adjust automated water irrigation schedules in real time. It can even automatically shut off when water leaks have occurred and notify multiple members of the team so we can resolve those issues quickly and minimize loss.

Benson: Another powerful tool is the University’s Landscape Master Plan published in 2018, which supports ongoing water conservation efforts. That plan provides guidance for the landscape of all new construction projects and presents a vision for where the university should be heading.

The University of Utah is also part of Utah’s State Arboretum. Will these water conservation efforts negatively impact the trees on campus?

Walker: As stewards of the State Arboretum—effectively an outdoor museum of trees—our landscape team is dedicated to ensuring the continued survival and maintenance of the trees on campus. The U has even created an interactive tree tour website the public can use when visiting campus. Visitors can view the list of trees alphabetically by name or use the interactive map to click on trees near them for more information.

Can you predict what campus will look like this summer with these added restrictions?

Walker: Yes, expect to see a lot of brown. But brown isn’t a bad color. Our landscape team is proactively evaluating areas of campus that should see sod removed to increase our conservation efforts. During the summer if you are walking across campus and see an area of turf turning brown, you can expect that by the fall or next spring that area will look a lot different.

It’s a balancing act to identify areas where members of our community engage and interact with the sod (and the community sees the sod is a benefit) and where it can be removed and improved with more native water resilient plants.

What should campus do if they see a broken sprinkler head or running water?

Walker: Faculty, staff and students can assist with our water-efficiency efforts. Landscape Maintenance teams are stretched across our 1,500 acres of campus. If you notice a broken or rogue sprinkler, watering during the day, or other concerns, please let U 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.