Campus growth will increase water usage, despite conservation efforts

Samantha Ketterer

Each minute, almost 13,000 gallons of water pump through pipes at one of four chilling stations on campus.

This is just a fraction of the approximately 700 million gallons of water the University uses yearly. The  Weaver Power Plant, which single-handedly provides power and air conditioning to campus, uses over half of that amount. 

Power plant manager Clay Looney said overall water usage in the power plant, which operates campus cooling towers and chiller systems, is only going to increase as the campus expands.

“We’re not like a neighborhood where you can say, ‘Oh, we’re only going to water the lawns on Tuesdays and Saturdays,’ or something,” Looney said. “We have to bring in the water to satisfy the needs of this campus, and I think everybody understands that.”

The campus chiller systems and cooling towers alone made up roughly one-third of the University’s total water usage in 2012–2013. The chilling stations work to send chilled water to the towers, where the water is evaporated to cool equipment that air conditions campus.

“It’s a pretty effective way to cool things off, but you do need to keep making up fresh incoming water to keep that process going,” Looney said. “These cooling towers are really the biggest users of water that we operate.”

In a separate “chilling process,” the plant sends chilled water through tunnels to more than 160 campus buildings, where it is received and used as a cooling medium. The water is reused through a tight circuit, and it rarely escapes the system.  

Because of the ongoing drought in Central Texas, Austin City Council set a goal of reducing water use to 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020. As a result, the University has worked to conserve water in many different aspects, largely through irrigation techniques, according to Mark Jordan, Water Conservation Program Co-ordinator for the City of Austin Water Utility Department.

“We’ve been working with UT for a number of years,” Jordan said. “We’ve reduced their water use over the past few years, whether they participate in our [City conservation] programs or not.”

The cooling towers’ main conservation attempts are through “purple pipes,” named for their distinctive color. The pipes carry treated sewage water purchased from the City of Austin.      

Looney said conservation efforts, such as using reclaimed water, help keep water usage at a level that doesn’t rise too steeply. The chilling stations also use “recovered water,” which is gathered around campus for free through groundwater collection, pool overflow and other efforts.   

“When you have this much water usage, [an alternative water source] ends up saving a lot of water,” said Mike Manoucheri, associate director at the power plant. 

The power plant began using reclaimed water in 2013 in one of its stations, Chilling Station 5.A new chilling station will accompany the building of the Dell Medical School and will primarily use reclaimed water. Following the building of this chilling station, which is slated to be the most efficient on campus, a third chilling station will make the switch to reclaimed water. 

“By using reclaimed water and being proactive about aggressively adopting those kinds of practices, we’re doing what we can to minimize fresh water makeup,” Looney said.