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November 2007

UNC responds to water shortage

Our state is in the midst of its worst drought ever, with no immediate end in sight. Gov. Mike Easley has called on all North Carolina citizens to do their part to conserve water, and I am very proud of all our campus is doing to be good citizens in that regard.

We conserve year round, but have taken extra measures in recent months to save more water because of the drought. As we leave the peak summer season and head into fall and winter, we will reduce the chilled water production that cools many of our buildings. In the future, the campus will permanently eliminate the use of more than 200 million gallons of potable water each year in these water system cooling towers.

Carolina, in partnership with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, is constructing a system that will provide reclaimed water (highly treated but not suitable for drinking) from OWASA's Mason Farm Sewage Treatment Plant to use in the towers. The system should be in use in 2009. Some reclaimed water will be used this year for state-approved nondrinking uses, such as for irrigation, where it is practical to truck it to campus. We work closely with OWASA and have been pleased with its support for our efforts here on campus.

We estimate that we will save millions more gallons of water in 2007 because we made such changes as discontinuing spray irrigation on the grounds (12 million gallons) and window washing for 130 buildings (almost 17 million gallons) and greatly reducing or discontinuing irrigation of athletic fields (almost 11 million gallons).

Now and for many years to come, we will be conserving water because of some permanent changes in equipment or technology on campus. These improvements include the installation of water-free and ultra low-flush urinals, dual-flush toilet valves, low-flow showerheads, frontloading washing machines and metered or infrared faucets.

We have changed the process of producing laboratory research-quality water so that potable water is recirculated instead of being used only once. We also save water outside buildings by using landscaping designs, like those at the Ramshead Plaza and Hooker Fields, that allow rainwater runoff to be stored to irrigate the landscape later.

New buildings such as the FedEx Global Education Center incorporate a variety of water-saving features, including an underground cistern to store rainwater that is used later for on-site irrigation and toilet flushing. Innovations like this will become more common on campus as we design and construct new buildings to higher standards of sustainability.

Today there are five buildings under design or construction on the campus that aspire to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards. Three of the design teams aspire to achieve a LEED platinum level of certification, the highest designation available from the U.S. Green Building Council.

At the same time, we are not ignoring the human factor when it comes to water conservation on campus. We are also appealing to faculty, students and staff to do their part as individuals. One of the biggest opportunities is in the residence halls and student housing.

Our students are accepting the challenge. They have made a quick start in mobilizing for a friendly contest suggested by N.C. State Chancellor James Oblinger to me. Beginning Nov. 10, with our football game against State in Raleigh, we started the clock to compare how much water our resident students can save until Feb. 20, when the Tar Heel men's basketball team takes on the Wolfpack. Part of the student leaders' message has focused on taking shorter showers, as just one example. As the contest continues, the community can watch our progress as status reports are posted on the Sustainability Office Web site,

We hope the days of this serious drought will soon come to an end. But in the meantime, we drive our dusty state vehicles past dry decorative fountains on our Chapel Hill campus with pride, knowing that we are doing our part to help the state and our community through this crisis.




James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages at

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