U.Va. Steps Up Water Conservation Efforts as Drought Kicks In

August 09, 2007
Aug. 8, 2007 -- With area rainfall well below normal and local officials pondering mandatory water restrictions, the University of Virginia is answering the call for voluntary water conservation.

“Now is the time to start thinking about conserving,” said Cheryl L. Gomez, the University’s director of energy and utilities. “We are changing operations to do what we can to save water.”

Rainfall this calendar year is 6.78 inches below normal and spotty, with the northern part of the county receiving much less, according to Jerry Stenger, research coordinator at U.Va.'s Virginia Climatology Office.

A rain gauge at the McCormick Observatory recorded 2.9 inches of rain in July, or about 59 percent of the normal amount. But less than 10 miles north at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, only 0.9 inches fell in the month, or about 20 percent of normal.

The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has called for voluntary water conservation, reminiscent of steps taken during the 2002 drought. In the ensuing five years, the University has reduced its day-to-day water usage by installing low-flow faucets and shower heads, performing an ultrasonic survey of underground water pipes to seek out and repair leaks, and replacing aged water pipes in the Academical Village. The water-wasting Memorial Gymnasium pool has been closed and removed.

The University, which reduced its yearly water use from 23,000 gallons per person in 1999 to 13,000 per person in 2006, is taking additional steps to answer the call for voluntary conservation.

Intramural-Recreational Sports — which still uses water-saving devices installed during the 2002 drought— will limit irrigation of outdoor playing fields to the hours after sunset or before dawn to lessen evaporation losses, said director Mark Fletcher. The exception will be Lambeth Field, where more than 92,200 square feet of recently installed Bermuda sod requires multiple waterings a day to become established.

Jason Bauman, associate athletics director for facilities, said the athletic department will check for equipment leaks, limit field irrigation to between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., cancel power washing in some areas and offer waterless hand sanitizer in restrooms.

Todd C. Romanac, landscape supervisor at Facilities Management, said irrigation is being cut back 20 percent, with watering done in the morning. Watering continues on the recent plantings around Alumni Hall. About 49 trees, which require approximately 30 gallons of water a week each, were planted in early spring. Trees newly planted on  Memorial and Founder’s days also require watering.

The Department of Parking and Transportation has modified its bus-washing cycle to reduce water use. The Housing Division and Dining Services continue to use low-flow water devices, such as low-water washers in the laundry, and will continue to install similar appliances in new facilities.

At the Medical Center, waterless hand-sanitizer dispensers are available in restrooms, according to R. Edward Howell, vice president and chief operating officer. Employees have been asked to report dripping faucets or water leaks, drink bottled water, avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily, and to reuse extra water for other purposes, such as plant watering, instead of dumping it down the sink. Dishwashers, sterilizers and laundries are only being run when they are fully loaded, and landscape sprinklers are only used in the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, the drought appears to be deepening. Water flow in area streams and rivers is very low in some cases, Stenger said.

“The evaporation rate is highest in the summer, even with normal rainfall,” Stenger said.
 “Normal” levels are determined by an average over 30 years, and are recalculated every 10 years. Currently, normal is being determined by an average from 1971 to 2000.

Rainfall could still catch up to normal levels, Stenger said, noting the tropical storm season, which has been relatively quiet this year, peaks in August and September and Virginia could benefit from heavy rains.

“It only takes one to change the outlook,” Stenger said.