Though public universities were excluded from recent statewide water restrictions for government agencies, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University both are taking continued steps to keep their campuses from using more water than needed.
Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order on July 7 in response to severe and statewide drought conditions. It directs state agencies owning land or facilities to curtail non-essential use of water for landscaping, establish a moratorium on new non-essential landscaping projects that require irrigation and set up signage encouraging state employees to reduce water use inside state-owned buildings.
“Oregon has a strong history of managing and caring for water to meet both in-stream and out-of-stream needs, but climate change and chronic drought require water conservation and a commitment to working together,” Brown’s executive order reads.
While tight water controls at some state facilities could mean only browning grass and thirsty flowers, some colleges are faced with the challenge of caring for broad, lush campuses whose watering maintains both aesthetic and, in some cases, research functions.
UO watering less, keeps eye on plant response
Though not obligated to follow new water use restrictions, UO Facility Services Director Jeff Butler said years of work already has improved the campus’s ability to manage the water it does use. Though computerized irrigation systems allow for watering to take place when conditions are most appropriate, Butler said the staff continues to tweak systems.
Irrigation watering in campus plant beds, for example, now is reduced by about 25% to 30%.
“We’ve gotten to the place where it’s pretty darn efficient, and we’ve saved lots and lots of water over the years,” he said. “When we tune it back a little bit more, what it requires from grounds crews is a higher level of attention to how things are doing in the beds.”
Watering on campus also is being reduced on turf areas, including those containing trees, Butler said.
Though trees show effects of drought less quickly, Butler said UO arborists are on hand to observe them through periods of reduced watering to assure they stay healthy.
“They’re all assets historically, aesthetically, in the business plan. That’s just one of the many things we’re responsible to steward,” he said.
“Water is one of the many resources we manage. It’s in the university and the state’s best interest if we’re good at that.”
Less watering means some brown grass at OSU
As it changes its amount of watering, Oregon State University expects some of its lawns, especially on the outer edges of campus, will go brown and dormant before summer’s end. Keeping them green would mean spending water, and OSU is prioritizing its most beautiful and sensitive plants.
“There certainly are areas we can and have shut off. We’re going to start seeing some of our outer lawns going brown,” said OSU Director of Facilities Services Joe Majeski.
Majeski said OSU already has shut off watering in places such as the oak grove south of Dryden Hall and around the Bennes dairy farm. Watering now is reduced around Dixon Recreation Center and the grass is browning, he said. More area will be shut off soon.
While there’s more to water conservation than how often the lawn gets watered, Majeski described campus landscaping as a big consumer of water and one of the most visible.
He said there are certain plants that can’t go without watering, some that will get less during the drought and others that will have to do without watering until the rains return.
“We have a very large collection of American elm trees, and they require summer water because in their native habitat they get summer water all the time,” Majeski said. “Oak and native firs actually require zero water. We have our high-intensity landscape, like our quads, that are postcard environments and heritage landscapes that warrant watering.”
Majeski said OSU continues to reinvent some of its planting practices around campus, choosing hardier, drought-resistant plants, such as juniper. The campus now supports rhododendron and broadleaf evergreens, new plantings aren’t as lush or decorative.
“It’s really changing the character and appearance of the campus,” Majeski said. “It’s not my favorite style, but I see the need and support using some of these unusual plants.”
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