With Drought Building, U.Va. Landscapers Taking Measures to Save Water

August 19, 2008

Aug. 19, 2008 — As water levels in local reservoirs drop, the University of Virginia has initiated a series of measures designed to reduce landscape water usage.

Irrigation systems have been dialed back 15 percent, with a plan to phase them out entirely. On the supply end, condensation water is being captured from chilling units at the School of Law, and water is being drawn from the South Pond behind the Medical Center for the University's extensive plantings.

After a yearlong drought, Charlottesville experienced a wet spring, U.Va. climatologist Jerry Stenger said. But conditions appear to be backsliding; August has been "unusually dry, and if it continues at this rate, it is going to be the driest August on record for Charlottesville," Stenger said, based on 110 years of rain records from the McCormick Observatory.

Thus far, 0.18 inches of rain were recorded this month at the observatory and .06 inches were recorded at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. Temperatures have also been higher than normal, exacerbating evaporation. The primary summer water sources are thunderstorms, which Stenger said rarely supply a great deal of water across a widespread area, and infrequent tropical storms, which can provide substantial water.

U.Va. landscape supervisor Richard Hopkins said that the University has been transitioning many plantings to native species that can withstand hot, dry summers, but he said that many of these plantings are still new and must be watered to become established.

Plants are being irrigated in the early morning hours to prevent evaporation. In some places, more efficient drip irrigation has replaced spraying.

Water is essential for other landscape applications, including pest control. Hopkins cited a problem with grubs in the soil at the Northridge medical facility on Ivy Road, and also near Peabody Hall. Instead of adding a pesticide to the soil, landscapers have introduced nematodes, parasitic worms that eat grubs. However, nematodes require initial watering in order to establish themselves as a long-term pest control measure, he explained.

In previous years, landscapers have withdrawn water from the Dell Pond, but Hopkins said it is too low this year.

"The Dell Pond is down to the level we stopped using it last year," he said.

The burgeoning drought is not just an issue of surface water and reservoirs, Stenger said. Ground water is "below normal levels, which are normally at the lowest levels of the year to begin with."

The reservoirs are getting lower, he said, with the South Rivanna two inches below capacity. "There is more being withdrawn than is flowing into it," he said, noting that underground springs also feed the reservoirs.

Higher temperatures and low water levels are also stressing many young deciduous trees, Hopkins said. 

"Trees that had no issue with the drought last year are now dying," he said. "The trees that are 100 years old are doing all right, but the trees 10 years old and younger are having trouble."