UO, OSU reducing landscaping water usage during drought

Although public universities have been exempted from recent state-wide water restrictions by government agencies, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University continue to take steps to prevent their campuses from using more water than necessary.

Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order on July 7th in response to severe and nationwide drought conditions. It instructs government agencies that own land or facilities to limit non-essential water use for landscaping, put a moratorium on new non-essential landscaping projects that require irrigation, and put up signs encouraging government workers to stop water use in state Reduce buildings.

“Oregon has a long history of managing and maintaining water to meet needs both in and out of the river, but climate change and chronic drought require water conservation and a commitment to collaboration,” said Brown’s Executive Order.

While tight water controls in some government facilities might just mean tanning grass and thirsty flowers, some colleges are faced with the challenge of maintaining wide, lush campuses whose irrigation maintains both aesthetics and, in some cases, research functions.

UO pours less, keeps an eye on the reaction of the plants

Although he’s not required to follow the new water use restrictions, Jeff Butler, director of UO Facility Services, said the years of work have already improved the campus’ ability to manage the water it uses. Although computerized irrigation systems allow irrigation when conditions are best, Butler says staff continue to tweak the systems.

For example, watering in campus plant beds is now reduced by around 25 to 30%.

“We’re at a point where it’s damn efficient and we’ve saved a lot, a lot of water over the years,” he said. “If we turn it back a little, the ground crew will be asked to pay more attention to things in the beds.”

Behind the Erb Memorial Student Union on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, Oregon, a lawn will be watered on July 21, 2021.

On campus irrigation will also be reduced to lawns, including those that contain trees, Butler said.

Although trees are less likely to show effects from drought, Butler says UO arborists can watch them during periods of reduced watering to make sure they stay healthy.

“They’re all historically, aesthetically, beneficial in the business plan. That’s just one of the many things we’re responsible for,” he said.

“Water is one of the many resources we manage. It is in the interests of the university and the state if we are good at it.”

Less watering means some brown grass at OSU

As the amount of watering changes, Oregon State University expects some of its lawns, especially those on the outer edges of campus, to turn brown and dormant before the end of summer. Keeping them green would mean using up water, and OSU prioritizes its most beautiful and delicate plants.

“There are certainly areas that we can and have cordoned off. We’ll see some of our outer lawns turn brown,” said Joe Majeski, OSU director of Facilities Services.

Majeski said OSU has already stopped irrigation in places like the oak grove south of Dryden Hall and around the Bennes dairy farm. Watering will now be reduced around the Dixon Recreation Center and the grass will turn brown, he said. More areas will soon be blocked.

While water conservation means more than just how often the lawn is watered, Majeski described campus landscaping as a major water user and one of the most visible.

He said that there are certain plants that cannot do without watering, some will become fewer during the drought and others will have to do without watering until the rain returns.

“We have a very large collection of American elms and they need summer water because they are constantly getting summer water in their natural habitat,” Majeski said. “Oak and native fir trees actually don’t need water. We have our high-intensity landscapes, like our quads, postcard environments, and cultivated landscapes that warrant irrigation.”

Majeski said the OSU continues to reinvent some of its campus planting practices, choosing tougher, drought-resistant crops like juniper. The campus now supports rhododendrons and evergreen deciduous trees, new plantings are no longer as lush or decorative.

“It really changes the character and appearance of the campus,” said Majeski. “It’s not my favorite style, but I see the need and support to use some of these unusual plants.”

Contact reporter Adam Duvernay at aduvernay@registerguard.com. Follow @DuvernayOR on Twitter.

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