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Irrigation crew
Matt Forrest, Irrigation Supervisor (left) with the Arboretum and Public Garden irrigation team Abel Figueroa, Keith Tipton, Jeff Farnham and Rick Bonin.

How low can they go?

In response to the California State Governor Jerry Brown’s drought state of emergency declaration and call for all state officials and California citizens to reduce water use by 20%, the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden team rallied and have already managed to reduce landscape irrigation by 67% over their 2011-2013 average. (See the latest water use information data website.)

“Quick results like these are possible thanks to long-term landscape management planning and a consolidation of all the units responsible for campus’s outdoor spaces into the Arboretum and Public Garden—this team now includes staff from the Arboretum, Grounds and Landscape Services, as well as Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and Campus Naturalized Lands,” explains Bob Segar, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Campus Planning and Community Resources, the unit that oversees the Arboretum and Public Garden. “We’re taking advantage of the strengths from each unit to tackle water conservation efforts together.”

“Due to the merger our response to the drought has been multi-faceted — we’re doing more than simply turning down our irrigation,” states Kathleen Socolofsky, Assistant Vice Chancellor of the Arboretum and Public Garden. “We’re converting low-use, high-water landscapes to low-water, region-appropriate palettes; we’ve turned off all the campus fountains, we’re upgrading irrigation systems to become even more efficient…not only that, we’re teaching our community members how they can do the same.”

“We’re not just taking out lawns either. When it comes to new landscapes, we’re teaming up with the Arboretum’s horticultural staff to incorporate water-wise Arboretum All-Stars, we’re working with Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and Campus Naturalized Lands to integrate low-water native grasses, and our Grounds and Landscape Services crews to design high-efficiency irrigation systems,” says Skip Mezger, Campus Landscape Architect with Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture. “It’s nice to see it’s having an effect.”

“The current drought did not catch us by surprise — we’ve been through them before. Over ten years ago our team started transitioning a large portion of our irrigation controllers to a computerized ‘smart’ system,” explains Cary Avery, Associate Director with the Arboretum and Public Garden. “We’ve been able to make irrigation adjustments automatically depending on weather for a while — now our system is getting even better despite increases in campus growth and development.”

“It’s a good thing we took the time and keep up with the latest technologies, otherwise there is no way we’d be able to manage efficiencies of this scale without more personnel. Now we’re being challenged to conserve an additional 20% — luckily there’s an app for that,” laughs Matt Forrest, Irrigation Supervisor with the Arboretum and Public Garden. “Beyond weather-based automatic adjustments, we can now further refine our irrigation controller settings to include variables like sun exposure, plant and soil type.”

“We were fortunate that we finally get some rain this spring so our lawns and landscapes look good right now, but as we move into summer, the irrigation cut backs will become more apparent,” explains Avery. “We’ve cut back our lawn irrigation by 25% across the board and are in the process of evaluating where we can increase that percentage without impacting the health of our trees.”

Another area where visitors and community members may notice a difference is the Arboretum waterway.

“About ten years ago we added an irrigation pipe to the Arboretum waterway; it was part of a pilot study,” explains David Phillips, Director of Utilities for Facilities Management. “We’d turn it on every so often primarily for esthetic reasons—the influx of well water would improve the algae bloom we typically get during warm months and prevent the waterway on the east end of the Arboretum from drying up. We’re not going to be able to do that anymore.”

“We’re anticipating that this will be an issue for visitors and nearby residents so we’re looking at a few options,” states Andrew Fulks, Assistant Director at the Arboretum and Public Garden. “We’ve engaged an engineering firm to provide a proposal for fixing our waterway, and, in the meantime, we’re looking at planting a bed of native rushes where we know the already low water will evaporate.”

“I’m proud that our campus water conservation efforts have improved and that my team accounts for such a large part of the improvements, although I can’t say I’m surprised,” says Socolofsky. “We’ve been working on improving our sustainability for years, and I don’t just mean limiting our environmental impact. Sustainability doesn’t end with natural resource conservation, we’re positioning ourselves and our university for long-term viability and that includes financial sustainability.”

“We are taking the outdoor museum we’ve created in the Arboretum and extending that throughout the rest of campus. We’re not just saving water, we’re creating a model for sustainability that can be implemented at other universities and other municipalities nationwide and beyond. Saving water is great, but keep looking! We’re doing more!”

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