Reducing Outdoor Water Use at the U

Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Office of Sustainability

In the Energy & Environmental Stewardship Initiative: 2010 Climate Action Plan, the University of Utah committed to achieving water neutrality–using only the equivalent amount of water that reaches the campus through rainfall annually–by 2020.

The U is making progress toward that goal. Between 2008 and 2012, the U reduced its water use by 15 percent. Multiple strategies have helped the campus reduce its use, including more efficient plumbing fixtures and retention of stormwater through bioretention systems and bioswales, which are used to collect rainwater for irrigation needs. Despite the achievement, the U is still a significant water user, consuming the equivalent of more than one billion gallons per year.

A large percentage of that water is used for outdoor landscape maintenance. In 2012, nearly 47 percent of the U’s water was used for outdoor purposes, which is significantly higher than the national percentage. On average, schools and educational institutions use about 28 percent of their water on landscaping, according to the EPA. I sat down with Sue Pope, landscape supervisor at the University of Utah Facilities Management, and Lorenzo Lopez, senior crew lead for landscaping, to learn about ongoing efforts to use less water and talk about issues that arise because of campus activity.

Drought-tolerant plants, including Russian Sage, can be viewed outside the Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building.

Drought-tolerant plants, including Russian Sage, can be viewed outside the Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building.

Landscape changes

One of the ways the U is reducing its outdoor water footprint is through planting native species and other drought-tolerant plants. Pope and Lopez listed off many desert plants that can now be seen on campus, including Russian sage, sumac, rabbitbrush, yuccas, and Utah serviceberries, among others. The Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building is a good place to see desert plants.

In other parts of campus, turf grass has been removed in favor of mulch beds with groundcover and decorative shrubs. Mulch, a cheaper alternative to decorative rock, is placed on slopes that previously had both mowing and runoff issues. This can be seen east of the Huntsman Center, as well as near the Student Services Building. Dark mulch is often used to create a softer look, Lopez says. More mulch is added every one-to two-years, with the more frequent additions in high traffic and high visibility areas. In addition to using less water, mulch also acts to hold in moisture and insulate the soil, as well as smother weeds that might try to invade.

Recent projects

Several projects have been completed in the past couple of years that have helped the U decrease the need for outdoor watering. The most recent was completed just a couple of months ago outside the Huntsman Center, where the grounds to the north, east and south side were redone. There was a significant reduction in grass, Pope says, and the space was filled with desert plants and rock. Bioretention ponds were also installed on the south side of the arena. The ponds filter out some of the pollutants from the newly installed parking lot.

The University of Utah installed several stormwater retention ponds outside the Hunstman Center in May 2013. The ponds slow runoff from the newly installed parking area and helps remove pollutants as water seeps back into the groundwater.

The University of Utah installed several stormwater retention ponds outside the Huntsman Center in May 2013. The ponds slow runoff from the newly installed parking area and helps remove pollutants as water seeps back into the groundwater.

Other projects include changes at Aline Wilmost Skaggs Biology Building, the Student Services Building, and Rice-Eccles Stadium. The exterior of Skaggs is now adorned with drought-tolerant ornamental grasses, and outside the Student Services Building the grounds crews tore up the old turf grass and replaced it with mulch and cobblestone. At the stadium, new plantings were installed along with a 12-foot grass buffer, which serves as a place for tailgaters to walk as well as a cooling mechanism, Pope says. Kentucky bluegrass, which is commonly used on campus, withstands foot traffic better than other types of grass, but because of its water needs, landscaping is also experimenting with drought-tolerant turf.

In addition to changes to existing areas, the University of Utah has also pursued aggressive tactics to reduce water use in new buildings. The university requires all new buildings achieve a silver certification from Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), and all new buildings on campus have received a credit toward that certification by reducing exterior water use by 50 percent from the baseline. Buildings to earn the credit include: Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building, Frederick Albert Sutton Building, James LeVoy Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building, the Natural History Museum of Utah, Donna Garff Marriott Residential Scholars Community, Spencer Fox Eccles School of Business, Thatcher Building for Biological and Biophysical Chemistry, L.S. Skaggs Pharmacy building, and all new construction.


Landscape maintenance staff has its hands full because of construction, campus events, and aesthetic demands. Some times those demands run counter to water-saving practices.

Among the most obvious water-saving measures is not to water during the high heat of the day because of loss through evaporation. The U is supposed to water during the window of 6 pm to 10 am. However, requests by offices to not water when employees may be coming and going, as well as not watering while guests to events are passing by, sometimes throws off the water schedule. Also, new seed or sod is a major factor in sprinklers going off during the middle of the day. For the first two weeks of planting, seed and sod need more water to be established. For those areas, the sprinklers are set to go off at 6 am, 2 pm, and 6 pm, Pope says. The afternoon watering will last an average of 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the type of sprinkler. Unfortunately, sprinklers cover large areas, and often cover more ground than just where the new seed or sod is laid.

Regular watering schedules are also impacted by construction. When water lines are disrupted, it can affect a whole acre. Some sprinklers may not be able to run because of wiring issues, so the area may need to be manually watered. Facilities Management is working on a centralized system to track all campus sprinklers. Hydrometers will measure sprinkler flow; if the system sees excess flow, it shuts down valves to cutoff the water supply. The hardware for the system is installed, but techs are still working through quirks in the programming. The new irrigation system also shuts off the sprinklers when measurable rainfall is detected. Facilities Management began implementing that technology in phases during the past year.

Switching over landscaping from turf grass to xeriscaping may save water, but it also comes with its own drawbacks. Maintenance crews for drought-tolerant plants require different training, including how to deal with weeds and plant-specific trimming techniques. Mowing is easier. Xeriscaping is also more expensive upfront because of the costs of the plants and rocks. Grass and irrigation combined cost roughly $1.50 per square foot, says Pope, and xeriscaping is about double that cost. Rock costs $120 per cubic yard, she says. Mulch is a cheaper alternative that also saves water.

*  *  *

Landscape maintenance is constantly struggling to keep the campus outdoor environment comfortable and attractive, while being mindful of conservation. “We’re always asking how can we do this better? Do we need to water this, does it need grass, or can it be shrubs?” Lopez says.  The department is always looking for a way to make campus more inviting, and is more and more asking if they can achieve that feeling without grass, he says.

Despite the best efforts of the landscape maintenance department, sprinklers do break or go off in error. If you see a problem, report it to 801-581-5358 or Dispatch at 801-581-7221.

4 responses to “Reducing Outdoor Water Use at the U

  1. Stop watering Sidewalks hoping to grow the concrete. Mulch beds with those fabricated wood chips actually soak up water and prevent nutrients from seeping back into the ground.

  2. Try sodding with more resilient grass. The type of grass you use seems very thin and dries up too easily in the heat. How about Kentucky BlueGrass or Tall Fescue.

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