Defending against drought

May. 05, 2014 @ 04:47 PM

A State Climate Office discussion of “lessons learned and issues” from the 2007 drought includes a simple, cartoonishly illustrated graphic that speaks volumes about human nature and weather crises.

It sketches “the Hydro-Illogical Cycle,” which goes from drought, to awareness, to concern, to panic, to rain, to apathy and back to drought again. Sounds familiar.

But lessons learned from that drought, which extended well into 2009 although at less serious levels, have sunk in, so to speak, with the City of Durham and Duke University.

Duke, a high-volume user of city water with critical needs for serving not only the university but its vast medical complex, has been working for years to reduce its dependence on the municipal water supply. Its efforts by next year will cut its dependence on city water by about one-fifth -- and save the university about $400,000 a year.

That, of course, will also be about $400,000 out of the city water system’s income. No worries, though, say city officials -- in fact, taking that demand off the system will allow it to accommodate Durham’s continuing strong growth while postponing expensive investment in new capacity.

Duke’s new self-provided water supply will be used to run the university’s chiller plants, so it will free up city water treated more highly than those needs require.

“We wouldn’t be getting as much revenue from selling water to them, but our overarching goal is to make sure we’re providing safe drinking water for potable-water purposes,” Vicki Westbrook, the assistant director of the city’s water department, told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg last week.

Meanwhile, Durham is also putting the finishing touches on its request for an additional 6.5 million gallons of water a day from Jordan Lake, about 65 percent more than it is allowed to draw from the lake now. That will help supplement the water stored in the city’s reservoirs at Lake Michie and Little River, which sank to worrisomely low levels in the drought.

For Duke, the $9 million “reclamation pond” taking shape very visibly off Erwin Road west of the vast medical center complex is the culmination of efforts to ensure a sustainable water supply. The lake will collect rain water from about a quarter of the campus to supply the chilling equipment.

Duke’s new reservoir will have a landscaped perimeter and the site will include a pavilion and a walking path.  “We decided we weren’t just digging a hole,” said Steve Palumbo, Duke’s energy manager. “We’re making it more of a campus amenity.”

Duke becomes more comfortable with its water supply, it saves money and combined with conservation measures lessens its overall demand for water, it gets an attractive water feature on the edge of campus and the city buys time before having to expand its infrastructure.

The project sounds like an unalloyed win on many fronts.