The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Dry Spell the Cause for Extended Sprinkler Use

“Well, it was a lovely, sunny afternoon,” reminisced Mark Angeles, ‘15, “I was leaning against a lamppost outside the library.” Angeles recalled having his laptop and a newly checked out library book right in front of him when he started to hear “a mysterious hissing noise,” right before he was shot full in the face by a sprinkler. After he threw his valuables out of the line of fire and got clear of it himself, he says, “the first thing I thought was, ‘Why are the sprinklers on at two in the afternoon?’”

Many students, in fact, are annoyed and curious about the prolific amount of watering the school seems to do. Sydney Scarlata, ‘16, says: “I can’t leave my [first floor] window open, because the sprinkler that waters the rhododendrons sprays right through it first thing in the morning.”

So why is the sprinkler system still on in the beginning of October? Reed Grounds Mechanic Knol Simnitt, the designer of the system explained that “Normally, by the second week of September, the pumps are down.” But due to an abnormally dry summer, the school has needed to keep the sprinklers in operation “until Oct 1 at the latest.”

If fact, Oregon has had more than an unusually dry summer. This year, Oregon hit an all-time low for precipitation. “From July 1 through September 30, just .25 inches of rain fell at Portland International Airport… Average rainfall for these three months is 2.45 inches,” reported OregonLive on October 2.

There are 8,000 sprinkler heads spread around the campus. From the end of Renn Fayre to the middle of September, these sprinkler heads use about sixteen million gallons of water. The water comes from “the old hospital lake” near 28 West. If the need exceeds that supply, canyon water is used. Because the school uses its own, non-potable, water supply, the water is free, saving the school between $50,000 and $80,000 a year.

But why water the lawns and shrubbery at all? Simnitt explained that there are aesthetic and practical reasons for what seems to be all this excessive watering. For instance, Simnitt said, the ornamental plants, such as the native rhododendrons, azaleas, and roses, need to be watered even more than the fields.

Simnitt explained that the general aesthetics of the college are exceedingly important to the administration. In order to present a good face to guests and prospective students, Simnitt said that things need to be kept “reasonably close to green.” To do this requires a consistent amount of watering. “Brown spots” on the lawn facing Woodstock Boulevard are frowned upon.

In addition, the school has several “semi-native and non-native plants.” On some parts of the campus, non-invasive, non-native plants flourish. “Down near the theater annex,” where there is no irrigation, there are plants “from the Mediterranean and California” that flourish in the direct sunlight and heat off the black top. On other parts of campus, however, there are “East-Coast plants that need a lot of summer water”—for instance, black walnuts and eastern elms. Oregon, as compared to the East Coast, gets mostly winter rain and almost no summer rain. “In an ideal world, we would be able to let the entire campus look like the canyon and never irrigate” Simnitt said, adding, however, that if he did that, it would become exceedingly difficult for students to walk to class through the vegetation.

“It’s a no-win situation,” said Simnitt. He says that “Environmentally minded students” will say that there’s no need to water the fields so much. There are comments about Reed “looking too much like a golf course” and that “we need to reduce our carbon footprint” — all points which Simnitt concede to be valid. However, added Simnitt, when there’s a brown spot on the front lawn, the administration will say, “we’re not doing our job correctly.”

So grounds management continues to irrigate, and, in the meantime, explained Simnitt, they are trying to slowly re-integrating native plants into the Reed aesthetic, tearing up some non-native plants and replacing them.

Simnitt, who has worked at Reed since 1995, designed and installed the entire sprinkler system. The first “sneaky” sprinklers were installed near the library in the early 1990’s. The sprinklers on the front lawn were installed after Simnitt arrived in 1995.The entire irrigation system in its present form was finished in 2001.

Although many students would say that there is no rhyme or reason to when the grass is watered, the amount of water the grass and shrubbery receives is carefully monitored. Simnitt said that since only so much water can be pumped at a time, it’s impossible to do all the watering that needs to be done at night, when it would least inconvenience the inhabitants of Reed. To regulate the amount of water the grass receives, there is a “weather station” on the lower athletic fields that feeds information back to a black box in the grounds maintenance office. Together, Simnitt and a computer interpret this data and water the campus accordingly.


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