Even with its frequent rains, Washington can’t escape the consequences of global climate change.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency drought on May 15 after the governor’s Emergency Water Executive Committee concluded that 48 of 62 watersheds in Washington have water supplies of 75 percent or less of normal, according to the Department of Ecology website. Clark College has responded to the statewide emergency drought by reducing irrigation. Clark facilities will also replace all plumbing fixtures with low-flow structures, though the project is not dependent on the drought.
Although rainfall statewide has remained stable, snowpack is 15 percent of normal, or 10 percent lower than the last statewide drought in 2005.
Snowpack acts like a “frozen reservoir” that slowly melts over the summer and flows to streams, rivers and lakes. Runoff from snowmelt this year is predicted to be the lowest in 64 years, according to the Department of Ecology.
However, at Clark the effects of the drought are not as obvious.
In past years, facilities watered the college campus nearly every day between May to October, but this May, facilities watered the campus only 15 days in response to the drought, said grounds manager Skip Jimerson. Clark has reduced irrigation before, but only to save money.
Jimerson bases the days to water on the weather forecasts. “If there’s a chance of rain, I won’t water,” he said. The campus is watered at night to minimize evaporation, and lawns that are in the shade are watered less than those in open sunlight.
As the summer becomes warmer and drier, Jimerson might let the grass turn brown in order to conserve water. “We have over $6 million worth of trees on campus here, so it would be a shame to see those all die,” Jimerson said.
Clark’s irrigation water comes from two wells that are located near the Facilities Services and Health Services buildings. In addition to irrigation, the well water is used for heating and cooling the campus buildings, Jimerson said. The wells pump up water that is carried to the central heating and cooling system located by the Health Sciences building. Whatever is left goes to irrigation or is returned to the ground.
Well water is not drinkable, therefore cannot be used as domestic water, which is water used inside the buildings, Jimerson said. Clark buys its domestic water from the City of Vancouver instead. To make well water drinkable, “you would have to run it through what the city runs their water through, and add the chlorine and fluoride,” Jimerson said. “It would cost more to do that than what you would be saving.”
Clark has been using well water for irrigation and heating and cooling for all of Jimerson’s 25 years at the college. The amount of water used for irrigation has remained stable, but domestic water use rises and falls with the student population, he said.
Drought or not, Director of Facilities Services Tim Petta plans to start a water and electricity conservation project this June. The project will replace all plumbing fixtures with low-flow fixtures. The new system will save about 30 percent of Clark’s domestic water use, Petta said.
The new toilets will use 1.28 gallons per flush instead of the current three gallons per flush, and urinals will use a pint per flush instead of the current gallon or half-gallon, Petta said. All faucets will be restricted to half-gallon per minute flow rate, when currently some have a 2 gallon per minute flow rate.
The Department of Commerce is giving Clark a $190,000 grant to pay for this project, though it will not pay for all the expenses. “The bottom line is that the savings in water and electricity expenses will pay for the project, so it is considered a ‘budget-neutral’ project,” Petta said. The project is expected to be completed by Fall 2015.
Biology professor Steven Clark said, “I think the burden of water conservation should go to everybody. I feel like if it’s important to other people, it should be important to us.” He said he would love if Clark stopped watering its campus and let the lawns turn brown in the summer.
Washington farmers use stream water as one of their main sources for irrigation, and this year’s drought means the government will try to prevent farmers from taking water from rivers in order to protect salmon, Clark said.
Salmon already are an endangered species, but rivers will continue to shrink and water temperature to rise because of the drought, further increasing the death rate, Clark said.
“When a species is on the endangered species list, states are required to come up with a plan for how they’re going to help the species recover,” Clark said.
According to Clark, Gov. Inslee said he will pay big farms so they won’t water their crops and let their fields go fallow. “The farm production will go down,” Clark said.
Clark student Eileen Cryan said, “I think it’s key that all of us pay greater attention to our environment.”
According to Public Information Officer Loretta Callahan, the City of Vancouver gets all of its water from aquifers. Rainfall, not snowpack, is critical to supplying local aquifers. The current drought is the result of lower than average snowpack. Fortunately, the current water year, which began in October 2014, has seen normal rainfall levels. Conserving water that comes from our aquifers won’t reduce the impact of the drought on surface waters and areas that depend upon snowpack, she said.
“Whether there was a drought or not, we recommend individuals use water wisely year-round,” Callahan said.
Clark said, “The sub-snowpack years have been getting more and more common, and that’s consistent with global warming.”
“I anticipate a shortage of water is going to happen more often,” Clark said. “I’d be shocked if that weren’t the case.”