University of Utah, BYU conserving water on campus

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Irrigation specialists Brady Pitcher (left) and Joe Jackson (right) teach landscape management students about irrigation systems. Pitcher and Jackson work with smart controller systems and help install and manage sustainable irrigation systems. (Riley Waldman)

See also “Understanding and combatting Utah’s water crisis” 

Landscape and environment often play a large role for students when determining where to attend college. But with Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent declaration of emergency due to drought, university campuses in Utah are adapting their landscapes.

University of Utah

The landscape management team at the University of Utah has been gradually working to convert their campus to a “water-wise” landscape.

Landscape Department Supervisor Lisa McCarrel said the university felt the need to make changes in landscaping as they noticed changes in local climate patterns. 

“The amount of precipitation that we’re seeing suggests that we are definitely headed to a drier climate here on the Wasatch Front. And I think it’s important for the university to look out 20 and 30 and 40 years and plan for that,” McCarrel said. “I think it’s important that we look to the future and make sure that we’re doing things correctly.”

McCarrel described the University of Utah “water-wise” initiative as a combination of xeriscaping and improving water management. She said many people think xeriscaping means using only desert plants or inorganic materials, but it doesn’t.

“We use plants that have adapted to this area or areas similar to this — and that can be plants that are all around the world that have geographic and climatic similarities,” McCarrel said. “We try to select plants that work well together and then zone irrigation systems so that we’re applying water to the plants according to their needs.” 

University of Utah plant operations director Cory Higgins said zoning irrigation systems correctly can be extremely important because it helps combat the tendency to overwater plants.

“For each zone you tend to have to water for the most water-intensive plant, which means that you’re probably overwatering other plants. So if you zone and group plants so that they’re all similar water use, you can dial down the water use even further,” Higgins said.

As the University of Utah is shifting to a more diverse and water-conscious landscape, they have noticed some positive benefits like healthier, more resilient plants. Higgins said the diverse landscape also impacts thinking and productivity on campus.  

“I think it indirectly helps support the innovative thinking of those on campus,” he said. “Landscape is a big factor in what makes you feel comfortable. If you have a boring landscape, you’ll feel bored. If you have an interesting landscape, you’ll feel more vibrant and innovative and be more engaged.”

Efforts to reduce water use on the University of Utah campus go beyond landscape. Higgins said there are also new standards for buildings on campus. Water reduction efforts have been applied to about 80 percent of the buildings on campus, according to Higgins.

“We have one building on campus that is dual-plumbed so that we can collect water out of sinks and use it to flush toilets,” Higgins said.

One of the most influential aspects of the university’s water conservation efforts has been their Maxicom smart controller system. The system uses temperature, natural precipitation, soil and plant material to help control irrigation systems on campus.   

Brigham Young University

The BYU campus also uses the Maxicom system, but has recently begun switching irrigation systems to a WeatherTRAK smart controller.

Sprinkler Supply Company smart technology specialist Joe Jackson said the WeatherTRAK system is 30 to 40 percent more water efficient than other smart controllers.

While the BYU campus doesn’t have the same level of xeriscaping as the University of Utah campus, BYU landscape management professor Greg Jolley said the grounds staff manages water use and plant life exceptionally well.

“The level of maintenance that we have on our campus is so much higher than what you see on other campuses,” he said. “A lot of other universities don’t put the care into maintaining their landscapes that BYU does.”

Jolley said a high level of maintenance is important because when plant life is well maintained it is healthier, it looks better and it will use water more efficiently.  

As campus continues to redevelop and add new buildings, Jolley said he has noticed greater use of water-conscious landscaping, including hydrozoned plant beds.

While Jolley said he doesn’t think there will ever be a time on campus when there are no lawns, he stressed the importance of acceptance as the appearance of campus changes.

“There has to be an idea of acceptance of that aesthetic,” Jolley said. “We’re used to our lawn areas but as water becomes more expensive, as it becomes more scarce, we’re going to have to be willing to accept that different aesthetic because it might be different than what we’re used to, and I think that might be a challenge.”

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