UT decreases water use with increased efficiency

Jameson Pitts

Drought, flood, negotiate, repeat — it’s the Texas water cycle. 

Water policy in Texas is in flux as stakeholders wrestle with competing priorities of municipal and agricultural uses. As growing cities increase their water use, UT serves as a model of efficient expansion by using innovative methods to reduce use and switch to reclaimed sources, according to UT officials.

“If cities were to watch us and use us as an example, they could implement some of the stuff we’re doing here, and, as they grow, maybe they can actually save water,” UT irrigation coordinator Markus Hogue said.

Despite recent rainfall, sources of water have not recovered.

On Nov. 4 the state approved changes to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Water Management Plan for Central Texas that provides more water to cities during drought by reducing supply to downstream agricultural customers. While some farmers and environmentalists are concerned with the plan, the authority is working to accommodate large projected increases in municipal water demand under the threat of drought. 

UT is one player in a complex issue. The authority works to develop policy with the state, the City of Austin is a customer of the authority, and UT purchases water from the city.

Jim Walker, director of the UT Office of Sustainability, said the University’s water use has been decreasing even though municipal use is growing. 

“This is the challenge on the large scale — as the population grows, how do you still consume resources wisely?” Walker said.

UT has the means to invest in efficiency that many other customers lack. The trend of decreasing water usage on campus is driven by innovation in a few key areas.

According to Hogue, campus irrigation has been improved with networks of sensors, smarter nozzles and defenses against squirrels, which have a habit of chewing through pipes. Hogue also works with the city and the authority to supply data that helps define best practices. 

“We want to be considered a living laboratory,” Hogue said. 

About half of UT’s water use goes to utilities. Clay Looney, operations manager for the University’s power plant and chilling stations, said more efficient power generation, a refined pipe network and chilling stations that use reclaimed water have helped reduce use.

“We’re doing the right thing by using water from the waste treatment plant instead of fresh water, which could be used for a higher type of usage,” Looney said. 

Hogue and Looney both said the impetus for improving campus systems was drought. 

“It ultimately drives the conservation wheel,” Looney said. “It creates incentive to do it better.”