I’m standing outside the central operations plant at the University of Houston. There’s actually a cool breeze blowing right now and one of the first things you notice about the landscaping is it looks more like Autumn than Summer. The grass is brown and dying and the leaves are rapidly falling from the trees.
“Trees are going into shock. What’s happening is they’re starting to drop their leaves as a way of conserving energy. We have some trees that are in shock and may come back in the spring. Other ones have not made it and they’ve just completely not survived.”
That’s Roger Warner, the Landscape Planning and Grounds Manager at the University of Houston. He says they maintain about 550 acres of grass, trees and shrubs, most of which are suffering.
“We have over 7,000 trees. We’ve lost a small percentage. But if you look at the newer planted trees, we’re looking somewhere in the range of 40 percent are showing stress. We are out hand watering these trees. We have some transplanted trees that take almost a thousand gallons a week to keep them going. Smaller trees take somewhere around 400-500 gallons a week.”
With using all that water to keep things alive, the university is doing its part to conserve water in other areas. Facilities and Operations Director Sameer Kapileshwari says they use low-flow water fixtures in campus buildings. They also capture condensate from the university’s large industrial air conditioners and recycle that water.
“That, along with some of the water treatment we are doing is really reducing. We use the water almost seven times before we discharge it into the drains in our cooling towers. So that all is helping us reduce water usage on campus.”
The university is in the process of installing a smart irrigation system that will actually regulate water flow based on moisture levels in the soil and grass. So if there’s a heavy rain, the irrigation system will slow or shut down on its own. But if we end up having a dry winter, Warner says it may take a long time to get the campus landscape back to normal.
“We try to use plants that are native down here or do well. So the grass will come back once it starts getting green for the most part. Most of the trees will come back if they’ve gone into shock. But we’re going to see shrubs, especially azaleas which everyone loves — they have color but they do not like this heat. So we’re going to have places that are going to look a little bare until we have a chance to get plants planted and what we’re going to have to do is see the extent and put in a long term plan for replacing the plants that have not made it through this very extreme situation.”
UH also follows the City of Houston’s mandatory conservation guidelines to water plants and grass just two days a week while the drought continues.