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All the Grass Is Brown (and the Skies Aren't Gray)

November 6, 2007

If you're looking for signs of an impending drought, check out a college bathroom. There you might find low-flow shower heads and faucets installed to reduce water usage. There, too, are actual signs that inform students "If it's yellow, let it mellow..." (you know the rest).

Colleges throughout the Southeast are plastering such fliers on dorm bathrooms and classroom buildings in the wake of one of the most serious droughts in recent history. Much of the region has seen a marked decline in normal rainfall, leading to the most severe classification of water shortage.

Campuses are asking everyone to conserve. Report leaky faucets. Take shorter showers. Serve water only when asked. They are following statewide mandates and deciding where to concentrate their conservation efforts. You can let the grass go brown, sure, but what about cutting back water usage in university hospitals and research facilities that are crucial to land-grant institutions?

It's a balancing act that challenges many a college administrator in Georgia, site of some of the most dire drought conditions. Last month, the state's governor instituted a total ban on outside watering in the northern part of the state, and urged institutions to take their own measures.

Much attention has been given to the University of Georgia's decision over the weekend to ask fans at its homecoming game not to flush stadium toilets. But the university's “Every Drop Counts” campaign goes much further. Georgia is speeding up efforts to install water-efficient fixtures, shutting down campus fountains and discontinuing washing most campus vehicles.

The outdoor watering ban has damaged much of the landscape and is hurting even native plants, which typically require less maintenance.

"We pride ourselves on appearance, but you see a lot more brown than you used to," said Kathy Pharr, assistant vice president for finance and administration at Georgia. "The campus is definitely hurting."

Pharr is co-chair of a task force that is looking into how the university can increase its water supply, which it receives from the city of Athens. The underlying assumption: This is a long-term problem, not a momentary inconvenience.

Nearly one third of water usage at Georgia is attributed to buildings dedicated to research, Pharr said. That includes the water it takes both to run the labs -- sterilizing equipment, cleaning animal cages -- as well as to keep bathroom facilities running. The university is encouraging researchers to come up with alternate ways of cooling the labs that conserve water use.

"Our charge is to look at savings, but to be practical and to not interfere with the core teaching and research mission at the university," Pharr said.

That's the edict, too, at North Carolina State University, said Wade Fulghum, the campus's energy conservation coordinator. A committee of facilities officials, formed years ago, has been charged with finding ways to reduce water usage without hurting researchers' efforts.

James Gregory, a professor in the department of forestry and environmental resources, said that while agricultural research and lab activities require steady water use, some activity can be limited or postponed.

N.C. State curbed its outdoor watering last month, before statewide reductions went into place.

"Irrigation cutbacks are hard," Fulghum said. "Nobody wants the university's plants, flowers and trees to die. Students pay fees so we can maintain the fields, so it doesn't make us popular on campus."

The university says it has decreased water consumption 29 percent per square foot since 2001-2, saving more than 262 million gallons of water. But with the state of North Carolina in a major drought -- said to be the most extreme in Research Triangle history -- even that isn't enough.

North Carolina's governor has called on individuals to reduce water consumption by 50 percent. Reservoirs in some areas are declining by one foot every 10 days, and without more rain, some parts of the state will have 60 to 70 more days of water supply remaining, Gregory said. N.C. State gets its water from the city of Raleigh.

Students are taking part in a contest with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to see which student body can reduce by a larger amount its water consumption from a year ago. The competition starts this weekend, when the two teams play in football, and ends in late February, when the rival men's basketball teams square off.

Duke University added waterless urinals and took other steps that helped reduce overall water consumption by nearly 10 percent this summer. At Duke University Hospital, staff are changing bed linens less often and recommending that patients use waterless hand sanitizer.

The situation isn't as dire at the University of Virginia, but officials there are still asking students and faculty to conserve. Cheryl Gomez, the institution's director of energy and utilities, said the region is in a drought watch but could soon be elevated to a level that would require water shutdowns. For safety reasons, the city of Charlottesville is allowing the university to water its outdoor fields.

"Our students have responded in the past when we've asked them to conserve," Gomez said. "It's a challenge to determine when you go guns out calling for action."

Changes are already in place at Coosa Valley Technical College, in Georgia, including the installment of a waterless flush system. The college has gone to a four-day class schedule in some cases and is looking to expand that schedule during winter quarter without cutting into overall class hours.

Berry College, also in Georgia, is facing its own challenges because, unlike many colleges, it has its own water supply for its 26,000-acre campus.

Jeanne Mathews, a college spokeswoman, said its reservoir is "definitely down, but for now we're still able to meet all of our needs."

Like other water permit holders, Berry has been instructed to reduce its monthly water usage by 10 percent, with the benchmark being the monthly average from last winter. Because of efforts to cut back on watering athletic fields and plants and cleaning campus vehicles, the college is on track to reach that goal, Mathews said.

Anything relating to agriculture and farm operations is exempt, however, as is new construction. There's an understanding that barns need to be hosed down for sanitary reasons, Mathews said, but even the college's large dairy operation is looking at ways to conserve.

“It’s certainly not a preferred system," she said, "but we're all living with it."

 

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