Utah colleges work to conserve water on campuses

University of Utah, Weber State and Salt Lake Community Colleges each have new programs in the works.

(Julia Chuang | The Daily Utah Chronicle) A water fixture near the Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Utah has a water problem.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 2022 has been the driest year on record in Utah, with 79.12% of the state in extreme drought or worse this summer. It is affecting everything in the ecosystem, including the local population.

Colleges and universities in Utah are taking their own steps to address the water crisis. Weber State University created a Water Action Plan to optimize water use. Salt Lake Community College switched multiple irrigation systems. And the University of Utah is installing more efficient water fixtures in its buildings. All three are committed to water conservation efforts — and they are all seeing results.

University of Utah

Kerry Case, the University of Utah’s chief sustainability officer, said a lot about water conservation can be learned by looking at schools across the Intermountain West, particularly other schools in drought-sensitive areas.

“This is of keen and unique importance to universities who are situated in arid regions,” Case said. “There is lots more we still need to do, and lots of plans to do more.”

University water conservation, among other indicators of sustainability, is tracked by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System ( STARS). The system serves as a database for self-reported sustainability indicators, and allows people to see how their university stacks up against the rest. The U. received a gold STARS rating of 65.48 in 2020, with Weber State receiving a silver rating of 61.40 in 2022, though SLCC, Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University were not rated.

The rating, Case said, “really indicates that the university is doing a good job in this space compared to our peers.”

One of the metrics that led to the U.’s rating was the university’s decrease in water usage from 2010 to 2019. In those years, the U. saw its water use, per campus user, drop by nearly 30%, even though the school added about 4,000 campus users in the same nine years, according to The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Case said the decrease could be credited to several campus projects and initiatives.

“Some of that is landscape conversion, away from turf towards more water-wise landscaping,” Case said. “Some of that is improvement in irrigation systems and controls. Some of that is also indoors, by both new construction with more water-efficient fixtures and retrofitting existing buildings with more water-efficient equipment.”

The U.’s efforts at water conversation, Case said, could affect the health of the Great Salt Lake, which has already shrunk by two-thirds, hitting a new record low this summer when it dropped to 4,190.1 feet, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

“We are part of a more sustainable path forward for the Great Salt Lake, not only through our operations … but also the way we contribute through research and education,” Case said.

If the lake continues to dry up, the repercussions would be many. The lake’s brine flies and brine shrimp would die off, ski conditions at resorts would deteriorate and the extraction of magnesium and other minerals from the lake could stop, according to The Salt Lake Tribune and The New York Times. Most concerning, because the lake bed contains high levels of arsenic, “the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous.”

Case listed another contribution from the U.: The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, which works to keep state policymakers informed on the issues concerning the Great Salt Lake.

Weber State University

Weber State also expressed commitment to water conservation.

Drew Hodge, the water conservation and Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System stormwater coordinator at Weber, said he is cheerful about the university’s water conservation efforts.

“Weber State has done a lot for water conservation,” Hodge said. “We recognize that water is an issue and that we’ve been in a long-term drought.”

Weber State created Hodge’s job in 2016, because of the need for better water management. Hodge said he started drafting a Water Action Plan as soon as he started at the university, and it took more than a year to put together.

“We really tried to get any stakeholder that would be involved and has a reason to care about water on it,” he said.

Hodge said the Water Action Plan is broken down into three categories: culinary water (water used in buildings), secondary water (water used for irrigation) and stormwater. The plan integrated input from students, faculty, staff and people from the surrounding areas. Weber State also created a water council that is open to the public and meets annually.

According to Hodge, the water council created a list of goals that were “realistic, but stringent.”

“We already knew what we needed to do, and we moved forward a little bit faster,” Hodge said. “It really set us up for success.”

Once the plan was implemented, Hodge said, it helped Weber State reduce its secondary water usage by half.

Weber State also requires any new development to use the most efficient water practices available. “Indoors,” Hodge said, “we use EPA WaterSense-certified fixtures. That conserves the most water indoors.”

Also, Hodge said, Weber State is monitoring “distribution uniformity” from sprinklers, to ensure water is distributed efficiently, and the school performs “regular water audits” to make sure the sprinklers are operating as effectively as possible.

Weber State is also implementing xeriscaping, landscaping that requires little to no water, in certain areas on campus.

“We prioritize xeriscaping in areas where it does not make sense to have turf,” Hodge said. That includes smaller areas, big hills, and areas where students and staff don’t gather.

The university also created a program, Water Warriors, to unite and reward Weber State landscapers for water conservation projects.

“Everybody chooses an area that they are struggling with that performs poorly [with water use],” Hodge said. “We do a water audit on it. And then we supply some funds.”

After identifying an area on campus, Hodge said, campus staff make an action plan to upgrade it. An additional audit is conducted to compare water use once the water conservation project is completed. The title Water Warrior is then awarded to the landscaper that has implemented the most water conservation that year. The university completes between 12 and 14 Water Warrior projects annually, Hodge said.

Hodge said the unique features of Weber State’s Ogden campus also help with water conservation — for example, the Duck Pond traps stormwater.

Weber State, Hodge said, wants to help the Great Salt Lake while it is in crisis. “We put into the [Water Action Plan] that we want to be able to eventually allocate our unused water to get to the lake,” he said. The water council is scheduled to formulate a plan to accomplish this goal at their next annual meeting.

Salt Lake Community College

Joel Evans, the grounds manager at SLCC, said the college has made recent changes to conserve water, including upgrading the irrigation system at two of its 10 campuses in 2020. A WeatherTRAK Irrigation System monitors water evaporation from sprinklers, among other things.

“It basically monitors daily the wind speed, the heat, the humidity,” Evans said. “It also takes into account what type of crop [is watered], which in our case is predominantly bluegrass, and makes an incremental adjustment on a daily basis.”

The Jordan, Redwood, South City and Westpoint campuses and the SLCC International Aerospace/Aviation Education Center all use this irrigation system, and the new Herriman campus also is expected to use the system.

Smaller campuses, such as the West Valley Center and the Miller campus, haven’t received this upgrade, but Evans said all campuses will use this irrigation system once the money to buy the irrigation systems is secured.

Evans said switching to this irrigation system simplified outdoor water conservation.

“We’re now able to monitor flow a lot better … giving us the ability to identify [when water isn’t being used efficiently] without having to check each individual zone,” Evans said. “It’s a little bit more effective and efficient.”

As The Globe reported in 2021, SLCC has emphasized xeriscaping, particularly within the Redwood campus. The college has plans to prioritize xeriscaping even more, by implementing it across campuses and significantly reducing grass on the Redwood campus.

Evans said that “less than 10, but probably more than five” acres of turf grass will be removed. “Right now, our focus is on areas that aren’t really utilized … I guess low-usage areas, like parking lot islands,” he said. “We’ve made quite a bit of headway there.”

SLCC also began a project in May to update the soccer field with “sports turf.” This type of turf is nonagricultural land, which means it doesn’t require water and will significantly decrease outdoor water usage.

Jacob Freeman from the University of Utah and McCaulee Blackburn from Salt Lake Community College wrote this story, as part of the Daily Utah Chronicle’s November print issue, which focused on collaboration. The story is available on the websites of The Chronicle and The Globe at SLCC, and the print issue can be found in stands on the U. of U. campus. It is published here as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.