Water Conservation Continues as Drought Persists

December 03, 2007

Dec. 3, 2007 — The University of Virginia is continuing to reduce its water usage as the region heads into what is predicted to be a dry winter.

Cheryl L. Gomez, director of energy and utilities for the University, said water usage has decreased during the past four months compared to the same months last year. July was 11 percent below the previous July; August, 7 percent below; September, 11 percent below; and October, 8 percent below.

"I think getting the word out is helping," Gomez said.

The savings have been realized in a variety of ways, including installing low-flow showerheads and faucets and water-conserving washing machines, eliminating the washing of vehicles, reducing landscape watering and using the minimum amount of water for chiller plants.

Water conservation measures will continue as the area goes into the winter with about a 12-inch water deficit for 2007. University climatologist Jerry Stenger said the long-range winter forecast calls for continued below-normal precipitation.

“The Charlottesville area is at about 70 percent of average precipitation for the year,” Stenger said, adding that Virginia gets very little water from snow melt.

"The winter storms that bring cold rain for days at a time are what keep us out of trouble in the summertime," he said. "During the warm months, it is hard to get enough water to penetrate the topsoil before it evaporates or is taken up by plants."

"The colder months are the time when there is a chance to make significant contributions to the deep soil and ground water levels," Stenger said. "The plants are dormant and the evaporation is low. If we have inadequate moisture during the winter, we could be in a bad situation when the growing season begins."

The drought of 1999 to 2002 was due less to a deficit in total annual rainfall than it was to a lack of rain during the winters, Stenger said.

The University is building water and energy conservation measures into its new construction, Gomez noted. And in the short term, there will be a reduction in water use as the University empties out for the holiday break. The University also uses less water during the heating season than it does to cool buildings in warm weather.

The drought, which covers a large part of the Southeast, is not yet the worst on record for Virginia. That distinction goes to the drought of 1930, Stenger said.

"That was the chart-topper," he said. "Rain was only 48 percent of normal across Virginia. That’s the benchmark drought used for planning purposes, and most water systems are designed with that in mind."