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Officials strive to curb water consumption

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Posted: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 9:00 pm

As most are aware, you need to water a plant to make it grow. But at Gonzaga, the growth sometimes comes first, as the University's rising enrollment only intensifies the need for water.

Plant and Construction Services recognizes that Gonzaga is among the top water users in Spokane, and is continuing to make strides in cutting back the University's water consumption and improving water efficiency.

The department recently completed a leak-detection survey of Gonzaga's water mains, miles of which run underneath the campus. A leak near the Honors House was discovered and repaired, according to Ken Sammons, director of plant services. A couple of other minor leaks were also found, "but for the most part the system looked pretty good," Sammons said.

The irrigation systems play an especially critical role in the University's water usage. Jim  Bellatty, who works in the water quality program at the Washington Department of Ecology, emphasized how this part of the state uses a significant amount of water during the summer. Irrigation and watering lawns are especially to blame, he said.

This is another aspect the University is seeking to address.

Last spring marked the beginning of the transition from the older, timed irrigation systems to a new computerized setup that enables the groundskeepers to remotely monitor campus sprinkler systems. This new system, according to Sammons, allows for more precise control and is more user-friendly. It will eventually be set up to receive information from a weather station and decide on its own how much watering is appropriate.

"The goal is to get [the irrigation systems] all tied in so that you only water as much as the grass really needs based on what's happening at that moment in time," Sammons said.

He noted that wind speed, humidity, temperature and amount of daylight are among the factors that will be accounted for.

Although the system has yet to be integrated into a weather station, its early stages already seem to be making an impact.

The university used about 14 million gallons of water in June, a reduction from the 23 million gallons consumed in June the previous year, according to Sammons. July showed a similar trend, with water usage decreasing from 33 million gallons last year to this year's 20 million.

Sammons cautioned that these patterns might not necessarily continue, as factors such as fewer summer camps or rainier months might have had an influence. "It's just an early indication that whatever we're doing appears to be helping, but we're not sure to what extent."

However, "we know that last year we used about 6 percent less water even though enrollment went up by about 6 percent," Sammons said.

The groundskeepers periodically inspect the sprinklers for efficiency by making sure the water lands on the lawns, not on the sidewalks, Sammons said. They also check that water is sprayed evenly to prevent the overwatering of an entire field just to enliven a small dry patch.

Air-conditioning units are another area in which Sammons said progress has been made. The newer buildings are air-chilled, and he said the goal is to eliminate the few remaining systems that employ cooling towers and require water. He also noted that low-flow shower heads have been in place in the residence halls for several years.

Sammons admitted that the incorporation of native plant species that require less water has not been a major focus. The primary concern has been to maintain the appeal of the landscape by including plants with seasonal variations in color, for example. He emphasized that "how at home, how at ease or how comfortable" students feel is affected by their impressions of the campus, and said "the plant palette was pretty limited without irrigation."

Brook Beeler, watershed education coordinator at the Department of Ecology, stressed the importance of simple water-saving measures that students can take. These include turning off the tap while brushing your teeth and taking shorter showers, and can make a big impact, she said.

"The whole knowledge base and awareness levels are rising and I think that's helping," Sammons said. He added that he hopes to see the trends of the summer months continue.

Electricity and natural gas usage has also decreased, he said, but added, "Who knows what the winter will bring?"

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