In a letter to the editor that ran June 23, letter writer Regina Ayars expressed dismay with an apparently malfunctioning sprinkler on campus at Southern Oregon University. I greatly appreciate Ms. Ayars bringing this to our attention, and I promise that nobody is more concerned with water use and damaged or otherwise improperly functioning sprinklers at SOU than I am. In the case that Ms. Ayars mentioned, a valve became stuck in the on position due to particulate buildup. Once we were made aware of the problem, it was immediately repaired.
SOU strives to be a welcoming and beautiful environment for the community and our students. It is our goal to lead by example and consistently advance our sustainability mission. Each year SOU makes financial investments into reducing resource dependency — including water usage. Our irrigation system requires constant monitoring and repairs, and we are grateful for our community’s support in notifying us of irrigation issues.
SOU landscape staff are on site from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; if a sprinkler runs outside of these hours it can be difficult to find without passersby letting us know. Every day we have a full-time irrigation technician working to repair sprinklers. We ask that members of the community let us know if they see breaks or misdirected sprinklers so we can make sure to get them fixed as quickly as possible. Any problems can be reported to 541-552-6231 or 541-552-6911 on weekends.
The SOU irrigation system was designed and originally installed to be a quick coupler manually operated overhead sprinkler system. In the late 1950s through 1960s when the system was installed, there was little concern over water use. In the 1960s and 1970s, SOU averaged around 175 acre feet of irrigation water use each year, or about 57 million gallons. With approximately 570 irrigation zones on campus, if we ran water only at night we could not effectively irrigate our campus.
On average, our sprinklers last about 10 years before needing to be replaced due to routine wear and tear. Vandalism, mower damage and vehicle traffic break dozens more each year. SOU has roughly 10,000 sprinklers on campus and approximately 1-3 percent of those sprinklers are broken during each irrigation season, which means 100 to 300 broken sprinklers each year on campus. We keep a running list of sprinkler breaks and prioritize them by location and amount of water loss.
SOU’s landscape staff are working each year to reduce the number of lawns on campus. We are also working to educate students and the public and change perceptions of what a healthy, sustainable and native landscape can look like. This changing of perceptions and the actual landscape transition will take time, but we are working with this goal in mind.
SOU uses untreated water from the Talent Irrigation District canal to irrigate campus. In 2014, SOU voluntarily reduced irrigation water consumption by more than 20 percent from previous years. This year our goal is to reduce our usage even further.
In 2013, the SOU administration made a large investment into the future sustainability of the campus irrigation system and the landscaping department undertook the most comprehensive irrigation upgrade in SOU’s history.
With these upgrades, we now have the ability to monitor live water flow throughout campus, and install smart moisture sensors below ground spread out across campus. This gives soil moisture data throughout the different micro-climates on campus. This system automatically adjusts run times via moisture sensors on individual zones to ensure that the appropriate amount of water is being delivered to each area, which helps reduce the amount of run-off. Our new flow valves also automatically sense breaks in the lines, send emails and text messages and shut down lines until repairs have been made.
The most recent landscaping on campus meets LEED environmental design qualifications. It is designed with the latest technology in water-saving irrigation. This system, coupled with drought tolerant plants and a large number of trees, make our recent landscaping very sustainable. This is the model we will be implementing campus-wide in coming years, with the goal of completing this transition across campus within five years.
Michael Oxendine is landscape supervisor for Southern Oregon University.