College Emphasizes Water Conservation During Drought
Issue   |   Wed, 09/14/2016 - 02:18

After the state of Massachusetts issued a regional drought watch in early July, President Biddy Martin notified students, faculty and staff of the drought’s effects on the college in an email on Aug. 18, calling on the community to aid in the college’s water conservation efforts.

The town of Amherst issued mandatory water restrictions that prohibit watering lawns or gardens, washing vehicles non-commercially, washing buildings, sidewalks or patios and filling swimming pools. These restrictions went into effect on Aug. 19 and will stay in place until further notice, according to the town’s website.

“It’s the worst drought we’ve seen in 60 years,” Director of Emergency Services Tamara Mahal said.

The town government contacted the college in the beginning of August regarding implementation of conservation measures, Mahal said. Since then, the college has taken a number of steps to minimize water use, including delaying plantings around the newly-constructed Greenway dormitories, reducing irrigation of athletic fields and halting car washes for college vehicles.

Nate Lane ’18, president of the student-run Green Amherst Project, worked at the Book and Plow Farm over the summer and said that the impact of the drought has become increasingly severe.

“On the farm, crops are a lot smaller than usual and the yields are much slower,” Lane said. “For example, you want, in theory, to have more potatoes in weight when you harvest than when you put in by a factor of at least four or five or six. We barely broke even on what we put in. That’s due to low water, which makes the plants more susceptible to disease and makes them grow smaller.”

According to Lane, the drought also affected the college’s dining hall. “The apples in the dining hall … are usually local,” he said. “You may have noticed they are very small this year [due to the] impact of the drought.”

The drought status in Amherst is not as critical as it is in eastern Massachusetts according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. However, Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker said that the town and the college are taking action to protect Amherst’s water supply. One of the main sources of this water was the Atkins reservoir, which will be closing temporarily after a summer of unusually low precipitation.

“We had a dry winter without much rain or snow,” Draucker said. “The snow mount was much smaller, which became part of the problem.”

Compared to an average of 36 inches of snow in a normal winter, Mahal said that Amherst only received 18 inches this past winter. Rainfall had also decreased from an average of 34 inches to 19 inches.

“We’re switching from relying on three primary sources of water to relying on our backup supply as the primary source,” Mahal said. “If we don’t continue to conserve, we risk putting ourselves and the town in a vulnerable position.”

The town, along with Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, now rely on groundwater from wells as the main water source. Mahal said that groundwater takes much longer to extract and purify than surface water from precipitation.

“We need to continue taking this seriously until November, where we’ll ideally see a significant increase in rainfall,” Mahal said.

If the drought worsens, Draucker said, the next tier of response measures will involve reducing air conditioning, switching off dishwashers in Valentine and using disposable silverware.

“Over 60 percent of our water use is through our academic buildings and residential buildings,” Draucker said. “A lot of it is individual use.”

Draucker and Mahal said that besides taking shorter showers and only washing full loads of laundry, students should report leaky faucets or faulty plumbing immediately.

“If you notice something that doesn’t sound right in the bathroom or is leaking, or you see a leaking faucet that’s hard to shut off, call it in,” Draucker said.

According to Mahal, running toilets are a significant source of water loss. “We’ve got a quick response team in place that’s really 24/7 and going around fixing these issues,” she said. “As a student, maybe you don’t think, ‘I should call in this leaky faucet,’ but in reality it’s a big part of our response.”

Lane also said that students should be aware of how even the smallest actions can affect the water system.

“This drought is something that affects you and me right now, and you notice it in the dining hall, you notice it when you’re around campus and you notice the brown grass,” he said. “Water conservation is very critical. We don’t want to deplete the water table because that has consequences for the environment [for] replenishing it — it’s more difficult.”

The drought status will remain in effect until the state’s Drought Management Task Force declares that water levels have returned to normal in affected regions.