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Necessity of Life

Written by Janice Murphy, Grounds Department
August 17, 2015

"You don't miss your water 'til your well's run dry…" It's a song lyric about heartbreak and losing in love through one's own inattention, but I find myself singing those words as I struggle to keep the trees and plants in my care alive this summer. I've come to expect an abundance of water for use during our usually short periods of drought. But this is a different year. 

Coupled with our extremely low snow pack coming out of the winter and the resultant low stream-flows, this hot, dry summer has put us into a "Catch 22" situation with regard to the keeping our landscapes healthy. Water consumption throughout the region has increased as we strive to keep from losing the very elements that will help us cope with a changing climate. We see trees weakening and dying that have survived for years on rain water and stored moisture in the soil. Trees are a vital part of the hydrologic cycle (the movement and storage of water through the various spheres of the earth); trees provide a cooling effect; trees capture carbon and sequester it in their trunks, roots and leaves. 

We can't afford to lose them, but can we afford to save them? 

The Pacific Northwest is known for its rain and the myriad shades of green that amaze visitors to our area. But this year we've been dealt a scenario that many climatologists are calling a "preview" of what changes we will see in our region as the climate shifts. Wet and warm winters and hot and dry summers are the predictions for our region going into the second half of this century. The effects are wide-ranging, from irrigation hardships for local farms to mass die-off of salmon to increased wildfires.

In the last week of July, the cities of Everett, Seattle and Tacoma implemented the first stage of their Water Shortage Response Plans. These plans ask for voluntary efforts to cut back on domestic water use. You can find lots of good suggestions at the Saving Water Partnership website. Forget reviving the lawn! It will come back when the rains return and will only waste water now.

There are also deeper, more challenging ways to reduce your water consumption through the use of cisterns and grey water catchment systems, and by considering how and where your food is grown (there is high water use in meat production, for instance). Take a look at Wholly H2O for a thorough exploration of water conservation and high efficiency use. 

Here at Seattle University Grounds Department, we are strategizing for short term and long range reduction in water use. Nearly all of our irrigation systems are computer controlled, with the ability to adjust for precipitation, and have automatic shutoffs when there's a break in the system. As a longtime practice, we irrigate only in the wee hours of the night and we've been installing drip irrigation wherever possible. This summer, we have cut back on the recommended irrigation schedule for the lawns on campus. For long range planning, we are adjusting our plant choices and taking note of those species here on campus that just don't thrive in this increased heat and reduced moisture environment. 

Drought and heat resistance have always been considerations in our planning, but will now play a larger role in decisions for future plantings. 

The bumper sticker that reads "Don't believe everything that you think" can bring you up short for a moment or make you think that it's a good adage for those who don't agree with you, but it also has a way of opening doors to new ideas. For me, the concept of the hugelkultur bed (a permaculture method of preparing a planting bed) was a foreign one and seemed counterintuitive to good gardening practices, but it is the one bed in my garden that seems to be coping well with the heat. 

It will take opening the door to new ideas and letting go of old patterns as we navigate our way through this challenging time. It's an opportunity to expand our notions about what role our green spaces will play on the road to creating resilience and hope in a new world.

 Janice Murphy is integrated pest management coordinator in the Grounds Department.