University of Virginia water consumption increases for third straight year

A currently running video promoting sustainability at the University of Virginia makes this claim: “Through conservation efforts, water usage at UVA dropped six years in a row, despite a larger University population and the construction of new facilities.” While this statement is technically true, those six years were from 1999 through 2005. For the last three years, both total water consumption and water consumption per person has risen.

Based upon data provided to Charlottesville Tomorrow by the University, total water usage has declined by 27.2% since 1999 (183 million gallons less in 2007-08) and during a period in which the University grew its facilities by 35% (gross square feet). However, the University of Virginia Facilities Management Department also reports that the trend of declining usage ended in 2005 and has been rising ever since. The total water consumption of 489 million gallons for fiscal year 2007-2008, is an increase of 12 million gallons from the prior fiscal year.

Because the University uses approximately 7 – 8% of the total water distributed by the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), these figures are relevant to the ongoing discussion over the adopted 50-year water supply plan.

UVA purchases the vast majority of its water from the City of Charlottesville, and a small portion (under 5%) from the Albemarle County Service Authority. Both of these bodies are the only two customers of the RWSA. One of the central questions the RWSA faces as it evaluates its water supply plan is accurately projecting demand for the entire urban service area over the next 50 years.. In May of 2004, Gannett Fleming, a consultant to the RWSA, released a document projecting demand to 2055. The demand analysis purported to take “water conservation and drought management “ into account as well as development preferences stated in the comprehensive plans. They predicted a demand of 14.5 Million Gallons a Day (MGD) by 2025 and 18.7 MGD by 2055. In comparison, the average daily water use in 2007 was MGD.

Some citizens have taken issue with these projections. Greg Harper, Water Resources Manager for Albemarle County, issued a report as a private citizen in May 2008 suggesting that residents of Charlottesville-Albemarle county possessed the ability to achieve a higher water conservation target than Gannett Fleming accounted for in its calculations. While the Gannett Fleming estimated an annual conservation rate of 5%, Harper set the bar higher at 15%, reasoning that the community demonstrated their ability to conserve by reducing usage by 20% during the 2002 drought. The local group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan offers a similar alternative projection.

In the context of this debate, an assessment of the University’s track record on water conservation could assist the community in determining which projection is most realistic. The University can set building design guidelines related to water use that exceed state and federal requirements. With complete control over its facilities, the University can, for example, mandate low flow toilets and shower heads whereas the City and County would have to motivate the public to voluntarily conserve or pass ordinances to mandate new restrictions.

The University has been implementing several conservation measures, from replacing shower heads with more efficient models to no longer washing buses and service vehicles. The Meadow Creek Stormwater Management Plan, which won national engineering awards in 2007, has created the Dell pond on Emmet Street, which is being used as a non-potable water source for landscaping. The University estimates, according to the Greener Grounds website, that these conservation efforts have reduced water consumption by 4.5% of what it would be without these measures in place.

Nevertheless, this amount of conservation has not been able to reduce total consumption. According to David Neuman, Architect for the University of Virginia, the University of Virginia is growing its enrollment slower than any other institution of higher learning in Virginia. Yet the University’s student enrollment is growing, with an increase of .07% from last year. This rate of growth can be expected into the foreseeable future, because the State of Virginia mandates an increase of at least 150 students per year. However, this growth cannot fully account for the increases in water consumption. The usage rates per person have also seen a modest rise.

One explanation offered by the University for this upward trend is the amount of water needed for heating and cooling the campus facilities. Like many other universities around the county, UVA heats and cools its buildings with a centralized system of steam tunnels. Steam is created through two main boilers, located on Central Grounds and North Grounds, and transmitted to radiators in the individual buildings, and the condensed water is returned through pipes back to the central boiler.

A steam tunnel under UVA – Source: Kevin Collins

While this system is generally considered to be energy efficient, it does require a constant input of clean water to run. According to a UVA website, “roughly 25 percent of water usage at UVA is consumed in the heating and chiller plants to heat/cool our buildings and process applications for research, animal care, and patient care.“ Any change in the number of days requiring heating or cooling from year to year will result in a corresponding change in the amount of water needed.

The effort to determine exactly how much water the RWSA will need is ongoing. The City of Charlottesville recently called for the creation of an expert panel to further investigate the 50-year water supply plan. Both the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the board of directors of the Albemarle County Service Authority ACSA has requested a meeting with the City over this decision. On Tuesday, November 25, 2008 the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will meet with the Charlottesville City council to discuss the reopening of water supply review.

Daniel Nairn