SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has historically been the largest water user in Salt Lake City and has taken criticism as a water waster over the years. Campus officials hope a new effort may change that.
The University of Utah’s landscape maintenance team has taken out a lot of water-thirsty turf over the last decade and expects to save even more with an irrigation upgrade this summer.
“This is a small city,” said Shireen Ghorbani, associate director of communications for the facilities department.
Campus is a bustling area with 65,000 people and a big water bill that the university expects to trim each year. Eliminating turfgrass is the most obvious place to start.
“Just in the last year we removed about 12 acres of turfgrass,” said Ghorbani.
They’re putting in waterwise plants instead, saving more than 2 million gallons in water last year. That’s a small percentage of the university’s outdoor usage, but they plan to take out 10 acres of turfgrass each year in the future.
As you walk across campus, they’ve made those transitions in places you might not even notice: edges of parking lots, and sidewalks, landscaping around buildings. Areas that used to be covered with grass are now covered with waterwise plants that use about half the water.
“When new buildings come online, we’re looking at ways to take out places where you may have seen grass that didn’t get a lot of use and putting in waterwise landscaping,” said Ghorbani.
This summer, John Walker, who manages the sprinkler system, is halfway through installing an upgraded irrigation system with nearly 200 different control stations.
“This just kind of takes it to the next level,” he said.
The new WeatherTRAK system automatically adjusts watering periods based on the weather. Alerts on crew members’ cell phones let him know what’s going on with sprinklers campus wide.
“It gives us a better alerts,” said Walker. “It gives us more information that we can use, and allows us to be more reactive to what’s going on in the system.”
They can fix leaky pipes and gushing sprinkler heads quicker, which saves water. The landscape team expects to save nearly 90 million gallons each year, about 20% to 25% savings on outdoor water use with the upgraded system.
“It really depends on how well we do as managers,” said Walker. “But, this system gives us the tools to do that. I’m hoping that it can actually be a little bit more than that.”
The system cost a half million dollars, but they expect it will pay for itself in three years, if they use it well.
“You can put in all of the newest and greatest, but if you don’t use it correctly, it doesn’t work as well. You don’t get the benefits out of it,” Walker said.
The university is making water-saving changes inside as well, especially in new buildings, with low flow toilets and faucets. That helps cut overall university water use an additional 10%.