Drought threatens USF

A survey of USF students by the Southwest Florida Water Management District revealed that:

  • 23% did not know that we are in a drought
  • 21% leave the water running while brushing their teeth
  • 58% take showers that are 10 minutes or less
  • 84% don’t run their dishwasher until it is a full load
  • 92% reuse bath towels
  • 48% use low-water settings on their appliances

USF is reeling from a two-year drought affecting Florida and the entire southeastern United States, triggering University administrators to look at how much water is used on campus.

No end is in sight for the drought, and drier conditions are predicted in the coming months thanks to La Nina – a dry system moving through the area. In response, the University is cutting back on water use and conducting public education campaigns aimed at teaching students individual water-saving practices and how to comply with new restrictions on water use.

The restrictions were instituted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). The District works with local government and regional water supplier Tampa Bay Water to manage issues such as droughts.

The drought spurred SWFWMD to enact an emergency water shortage order. The order – restricting lawn watering to one day a week – was set to expire July 30, 2007 but was extended to June 30, 2008 because of below-average rainfall during the summer, SWFWMD spokeswoman Robyn Hanke said. The order controls how organizations and individuals use water.

Under the ordinance, universities can only use sprinklers once a week and can run fountains for just eight hours per day.

Joseph M. Eagan, vice president of USF Administrative Services, told University spokeswoman Barbara Perkins of Media Relations that USF abides by the mandated water restrictions. He said the University obtained a special ordinance to allow for sprinklers to be used more than once a week because it is “impractical to water the whole campus in a day.” Rather, USF waters “different zones on different days.”

As for the fountains, Eagan said that they are “recirculation types,” so they can run for more than eight hours per day.

Most of the water used on campus comes from wells owned by USF, said Carl Carlucci, vice president and CFO of USF. The wells cannot supply enough water to the whole campus, so USF also relies on the city of Tampa to furnish certain on-campus facilities with water.

Bob Brinkmann, chair of the geography department, also named water waste as one of the major factors leading to drought conditions. “We are one of the only countries in the world that puts fresh, clean drinking water on lawns,” he said. “If we didn’t waste so much water, we could weather a drought without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, our country is behind the times in terms of water harvesting and conservation.”

The current drought is characterized as severe; the worst drought experienced in the state’s recorded history took place in 2000, according to Hanke.

She went on to say that the 16 counties that SWFWMD serves are about 20 inches below normal rainfall. The drought has had many effects: rivers are running at low levels, most lakes are one to four feet below normal and aquifer levels are either below normal or at the bottom of the normal ranges, she said.

Some on campus feel that water conservation efforts at USF are lacking.

“I think we have all seen water sprinklers going on during rainstorms here at USF,” said Brinkmann. “We have large grounds space at USF. It would be nice to see some of it transferred to native vegetation to cut watering costs.”

In addition to efforts spearheaded by the Physical Plant, SWFWMD worked with the USF Collaborative for Children, Families and Communities to hire five USF public relations students to research how college students use water and whether they waste it.