The Drought's Not Over, and the University is Planning for a Dry Summer

February 20, 2008
February 21, 2008 — Recent rains have been helpful, but are not enough to end a stubborn drought, said Philip J. "Jerry" Stenger, research coordinator at the University of Virginia Climatology Office.

"As miserable as recent weather has felt, it is precisely what we need," he said, referring to several days of cold rain last week and the prediction of snow, sleet and freezing rain in the coming days. "If we could have many more days like these, we will be glad for it in the long run."

Groundwater is recharged during the winter months, Stenger explained, when plants are dormant, cooler temperatures retard evaporation, and people's water usage is at a low point. This winter, from October through mid-February, rainfall is about 4¾ inches below normal. Rainfall for calendar year 2007 was 14.26 inches short of normal, according to Stenger.

Monitoring wells around Virginia are recording unusually low groundwater levels, he noted. The nearest well, in Gordonsville, has reached a record low for this time of year.

"Normally, groundwater is reaching its peak about now," Stenger said. "But most of the wells are either level or going down."

While local reservoir levels have improved, Stenger said groundwater is needed to recharge the reservoirs throughout the warmer months.

"We still need to get more precipitation," he said. "If things continue at this rate, this will not have made enough of an improvement before the growing season starts."

Once plants start leafing out around April, "The rate of water loss will rise sharply, and later on wwill be at the mercy of summer thunderstorms," Stenger said.

U.Va. landscape superintendent Rich Hopkins is already planning for a dry summer. Planting projects are using more native species that are accustomed to the climate and require less intensive maintenance. Drip irrigation systems, which use less water, will be deployed in many areas. Landscapers will draw water from the stormwater runoff ponds at the Dell and near the Emmett Street parking garage and a holding pond near the South Garage at the Medical Center.

"The normal stream levels will be maintained," said Hopkins, who also is planning a system of cisterns to capture storm run-off from roofs.

U.Va. landscapers will assess plantings around new construction for size and water consumption, he said. Since new plantings generally require more water to become established, some may be phased in.

Water use is down elsewhere at the University. Elizabeth "Libba" Bowling, an energy engineer with Facilities Management, said U.Va.'s water use has decreased by 194 million gallons per year, or almost 30 percent, from the peak water use in 1999 — despite adding nearly 3.5 million square feet of new buildings.

U.Va. has taken many conservation steps, including installing low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets in residence halls, as well as high-efficiency clothes washing machines.  Systems have been developed to capture condensation water and maintenance workers have been careful to keep machines running at peak efficiency. About 87 percent of steam condensate is recovered, saving both water and energy. Water that condenses inside air handler cooling coils is recovered and pumped to a cooling tower for reuse, saving nearly 2 million gallons of water annually.

Buildings are regularly examined for opportunities to decrease water and energy use, said Bowling, especially in heating and cooling systems, which consume about 25 percent of the University's water.

Successful ideas — such as using recovered condensation from air conditioning for irrigation water, prohibiting designs that use water from the tap   for cooling water that only goes through a system once and requiring meters for domestic water, chilled water, hot water and cooling tower systems — are added to U.Va.'s  building design guidelines. Metering can help identify leaks in the distribution system.

Bowling said her office also gets help from organizations such the Conservation Advocates, students who educate their peers on environmental issues such as recycling and energy use. Advocates alert Bowling to many small things, such as leaking faucets.

"It is like having eyes everywhere. They are constantly sending us e-mails," Bowling said. "They requested shower tags to remind students to take short showers."

According to Bowling, Dining Services has installed low-flow fixtures and dishwashers, converted water-cooled equipment to air-cooled and replaced garbage disposals with pulpers that recycle water. Diners are asked to use trays only when necessary, since about one-third of the washing water is used to clean them.