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SOU grapples with water shortage

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Southern Oregon University is holding back on watering grass on campus to conserve water.
University letting some lawns, fields go brown during drought

Facing an unprecedented drought, Southern Oregon University is rethinking its campus irrigation system that uses almost a half-million gallons of water a day during the summer.

The university is letting some lawns and sports fields go brown, while trying to save trees and landscaping.

Daily irrigation water use in the summer is about 425,000 to 450,000 gallons. The campus has about 10,000 sprinkler heads, according to SOU Director of Community and Media Relations Joe Mosley.

SOU draws its irrigation water from the Talent Irrigation District, which relies on reservoirs that are at historically low levels.

Local irrigation districts warn they may have to cut off water Aug. 1 — well before orchards, vineyards and cannabis growers harvest their crops. TID is in the midst of a two-week water shutoff in a bid to save water for later when temperatures skyrocket.

With a campus of almost 200 acres, SOU is a major user of irrigation water for nonagricultural purposes.

“We’ve looked at areas we could let go brown while we transition to a more sustainable footprint in the future,” said SOU Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Perkinson.

At least for now, the lawn is still lush and green in some spots, like in front of iconic Churchill Hall.

But the lawns are brown near The Hawk dining building, nearby residence halls and the Lithia Motors Pavilion sports center. Right next to the crispy grass, landscaped beds with young trees and bushes are still thriving.

SOU plans to minimally water a sports practice field that will be used this summer for football camps, Perkinson said.

A field used for intramural sports won’t be watered, he said.

“The biggest risk when the grass dies out is the weeds come up,” Perkinson said.

The intramural sports field is already covered in prickly weeds that are knee-high in spots.

Mike Oxendine worked for 11 years maintaining the campus grounds at SOU. He now works for the Plant Oregon nursery near Talent.

Oxendine said he’s already seeing signs of drought stress in some trees at SOU, especially those on the periphery of campus. Letting lawns go brown could endanger trees with roots that spread out in a wide perimeter underground.

“A lot of the large trees on campus deserve to be kept alive. Trees have grown used to having water on the lawns for years and years. It’s going to be a very complex issue. It will be challenging,” Oxendine said. “My priority would be to keep the trees alive, especially the heritage trees and new trees that don’t have deep roots yet.”

Oxendine said SOU has an antiquated irrigation system that is very costly to upgrade. Many of the older main lines run under sidewalks and roads or close to large trees.

As SOU has been carrying out construction projects, it’s been gradually upgrading the irrigation system, Oxendine said.

Past improvements include upgrades to monitor water flow, automated leak detection and the installation of underground sensors to monitor soil moisture and automatically adjust water deliveries, according to Oxendine.

Perkinson said many parcels of land are still watered by an irrigation system with manual controls, rather than a more modern automated system. Responding to leaks and repairing broken sprinklers is another major chore.

“Last year, a lot of the challenges for the landscaping crew was they were chasing breaks. They were going from break to break to break,” Perkinson said.

The low estimate for modernizing the system is $150,000, but that figure could double, he said.

In the long term, SOU is reducing the amount of its campus devoted to lawns and gradually moving to drought-tolerant landscaping, he said.

Perkinson said many SOU students are concerned about social justice, equity and environmental issues, including water conservation.

“They’re the ones that see the sprinkler running and running and running and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re over-watering here,’” he said. “And so we need to be mindful of that and dial that back.”

Some parents, on the other hand, want a green oasis for their kids in college.

Perkinson said a parent recently complained that the grass was green when she moved her kid onto campus two years ago, but now the grass is brown and looks terrible.

Another parent criticized SOU on social media about the dried out conditions on some parts of campus. But community members took her to task.

“They were saying, ‘Look. We’re in the middle of a drought and of course some grass is going to be brown.’ So she got a lot of blowback — not from me — but from local community members on social media that are saying, ‘Hey, chill out, man. We’re in this together,’” Perkinson said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.