Editor’s Note: Since July, UConn has lifted the mandatory water conservation measures. Voluntary measures are still in effect as of September 2012.
Written July 31, 2012, under moderate drought stage conditions by Rachael Shenyo, Sustainability Coordinator
The University of Connecticut Storrs Campus draws water to meet its daily water consumption needs from wellfields along two rivers that flank the University property: the Fenton River to the east, and the larger Willimantic River to the west. Under normal rainfall and water table conditions, the University is authorized to draw 844,000 gallons daily form the Fenton wellfield, and up to 2.3 million from the Willimantic wellfield. Our 2011 total water consumption was 471,651,000 gallons, giving us an average daily water consumption of 1.3 million gallons per day, well below the threshold we are authorized (and also, due to water conservation measures already taken, 13% lower than the 1.5 million gallon/day usage rates from 2005). Under normal stream flow conditions, then, the University stays well below the limits where excessive use would adversely impact the rivers, with some room for leeway during unusually dry conditions. It is important to keep in mind that water usage patterns differ from season to season, with more water being used for cooling and irrigation in the summer than in other seasons, but far more for residents and programs during the normal fall and spring semesters.
Impact studies (and unfortunate experience) have shown that during times where the water table is down, and/or during times of unusually low rainfall, the University’s normal level of water usage can negatively impact the stream flow of both rivers, especially the smaller Fenton. Thus, the University developed a set of guidelines that describe stages of voluntary and mandatory conservation measures that will be enacted during conditions that warrant it. These guidelines, and the severity of the restrictions, are based on actual real-time stream flow data collected from the two rivers. The real time stream data is provided via the USGS, and can be seen here for the Fenton, and here for the Willimantic. The goal of the restrictions is to eliminate or reduce non-essential water use, and significantly reduce water used for essential functions. The University has just issued a Stage II Water Supply Watch, which includes mandatory restrictions.
(Editor’s Note: Links are updated weekly, so values reported on July 17-30, 2012, when this was written, may not reflect current values).
At this writing, the flows in both rivers are running at roughly 50% of normal flow, as calculated by the USGS as a 5 year moving average. According to the USDA Drought Monitor, Tolland County Connecticut is hovering between abnormally dry conditions (see map on right) and moderate drought, and has been since March 6, 2012. According the Northeast Regional Drought Center information available through Cornell, precipitation for the first half of 2012 has been only roughly 60-75% of normal (see below). The water table can handle some amount of fluctuation, and when the water table is higher than the river flow, it can replenish the rivers during periods of low rainfall. Some normal give and take happens as part of the natural processes during seasonal changes. However, during prolonged periods of short rainfall, the water table itself falls below the level of the rivers. When this happens, stream flows in both rivers go down.
While the USDA information is not predicting extreme drought conditions to develop, they are cautioning that it would take 6.54 inches above normal rainfall amounts to return the water table to normal levels. Even that number is misleading, since it takes a week in most regions for precipitation to reach the water table, and in drought conditions, where the soil can be baked harder than normal, surface rainfall, especially in the form of heavy downpours, often washes off completely (or temporarily floods) instead of being absorbed. So even a hypothetical hurricane that drops a foot of rain next week would not necessarily resolve the situation.
It is worth noting here that the most significant source of groundwater in the north is spring melt of winter snowfall, and we had almost no snowfall this winter in the entire state. The months of August and September are traditionally the driest months for our region, so if normal rainfall patterns prevail, the dry soil conditions will not alleviate, and the water table will not get any relief until October. October is when deciduous trees drop their leaves, and coniferous trees prepare for winter, thus drawing less water from the ground for maintenance of vegetation and life processes. The years when UConn has had to enact water restrictions, it has typically occurred during August and September, and been somewhat alleviated in October.
This year has been unusual for the state history, being the driest winter and spring on record, so there is no guarantee that conditions will return to normal in October without significant precipitation. At this point, the USDA is not predicting that severe drought conditions will be reached. Short and long term precipitation models at current indicate near normal precipitation patterns for the rest of the year, but it is unknown if conditions will remain at or near the current moderate drought conditions.
So what is the University doing?
The University administrators expect that at the beginning of the fall semester this year, the combination of already dry conditions, low water table, near-normal [low] rainfall patterns, and sudden spike in on-campus water usage will stress the existing river watersheds. As stated earlier, average daily water consumption is around 1.3 million gallons/ per day, with numbers reflecting highest water usage occurring during the month of September, which corresponds with our expected driest season. The University will continue to monitor the steam flow of both rivers, and usage will be diverted from the especially vulnerable Fenton River. Mandatory water conservation guidelines have been issued, and may be modified if the situation worsens. The following mandatory conservation measures, which affect mostly UConn personnel, were effective immediately as of July 17:
- Lawn watering for all University and non-University users is limited to four hours or less per day and only between the hours of 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Athletic fields will be allowed up two hours of water per day during the same hours.
- Filling of public or private pools must be provided via water delivered from another source.
- Washing of motor vehicles is banned. The University’s wash bay will be closed until further notice.
- The use of ornamental or display fountains is banned.
- The use of water for washing and wetting down streets, sidewalks, driveways, or parking areas is banned unless required by the local public health authority.
- The use of UConn water for dust control at construction sites is banned. Contractors are required to provide water for dust control from off-site.
- The use of hydrant sprinkler caps is banned.
- Water main flushing will only be used to address water quality issues.
If the conditions worsen, you may see the dining halls switch to paper plates and plastic cutlery, in order to reduce water needed for plate washing. Although this measure seems counter-intuitive from a “green” perspective, it may be necessary for during times when water conservation needs outweigh our desire to reduce overall waste volume produced by the University.
UConn Storrs has also taken the initiative on this issue, with a move towards sustainable landscape design that involves the use of rain gardens and native species and drought tolerant plants that reduce water use; low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets; steam line renovations that repair leaks where water is wasted; and the construction of the first large-scale reclaimed water facility in the State of Connecticut, which, upon completion, will cut Storrs campus’s current daily potable water usage by up to ¼.
So what can individuals on campus do?
As with so many things, everyday small actions do make a big difference. Our goal is to reduce water consumption across the campus, from all sources, by as much as possible. Voluntary water conservation measures are being requested of residents and users of the University water system, including:
- Take shorter showers.
- Run dishwashers and washing machines with full loads.
- Use water only as needed when washing dishes, shaving, and brushing teeth.
- Avoid power washing buildings and washing vehicles with public water.
- Raise the thermostat in UConn buildings, particularly when leaving at night.
- Immediately report leaky fixtures in UConn buildings to Facilities Operations: 860-486-3113.
If you are in a position to inform others, as a professor, Residence Assistant, or other individual involved in outreach, please know that we have a wealth of materials available to you that we encourage you to use to help spread the message of responsible water use. They are listed in the Additional Resources section below.
Employers and Department Heads:
- We encourage you to inform your employees of the mandatory conservation measures by ensuring that they read either this blog, or this shorter article in UConn Today.
Residents of University Houses, Dorms and Apartments:
- Expanded tips for water conservation in dorms and apartments can be found here.
- Report any and all leaky faucets or showerheads immediately 860-486-3113.
- Our water conservation FAQ page and RA Water FAQ page may help you answer questions residents have about UConn’s water supply
- We will soon be making reminder posters available for laundry rooms, bathrooms, and common areas
- You may be interested to know that the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension has a series of informative programs about water conservation; including home water quality, rain gardens, and native/ sustainable landscaping.
- A webinar on rain gardens is also available.
- For additional background information on the Fenton River, click here.
- To see a list of current water usage projects by the University, click here.
- For any additional questions, please contact the Office of Environmental Policy at 860-486-5773.