In the midst of the region's worst drought in a century, the sight of sprinklers' operating at mid-day in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens has become a point of discontent for some Durham residents.
Duke officials maintain and the city manager's office confirms, however, that the University has operated within the letter of the law since the city enacted Stage III of the Water Conservation Ordinance in late June.
Durham's Conservation Coordinator Vicki Westbrook said the University has been cooperative in working with the city. Currently, Duke is one of 37 businesses licensed to operate contrary to the ordinance, with a provision that overall usage be reduced by 30 percent or greater.
"[The University] didn't want people to think they were abusing water. They wanted to get all the paperwork in place so it was understood that they were working with us and making concessions on overall water usage," Westbrook said. "They have been very responsive to any additional inquiries we've had, and they've taken immediate action to anything that has been brought up."
Westbrook noted the University has actually cut water usage by more than 30 percent since the restrictions were put in place.
In addition to stopping the fountains in the gardens and using more water from a nearby pond, the University has decided to hold off on campus landscaping projects, including at the newly built West-Edens Link dormitory.
"It makes little sense to add additional watering needs at this time of the year when we have the restrictions in place," said Grounds and Sanitation Manager Joe Jackson. "That1s like taking one step forward and several backward."
Glenn Reynolds, manager of projects and engineering, said the University requested a water use license so it could hydrate the gardens at times when the rest of the city is limited. "With the variety of flora and fauna we have on campus, some of it requires more attention than what the strict requirements allow us to do," he said. "We are not at optimum, but with the initiatives we've taken and with the coordination and cooperation we've gotten from the city, we're maintaining."
Most of the complaints that Durham residents have made about the University's watering practices have been based on misunderstandings, said Westbrook and Reynolds.
"As we explain to people that we have been working with the city of Durham and that we are, in fact, watering less, they understand," Reynolds said.
Some residents support the University's watering practices. Stephanie Sams, a manager at Blue Corn Cafe on Ninth Street, said Duke should be able to water when necessary. "This whole town is formed around the University," Sams said. "They should definitely be careful and conserve as much as possible, but with the gardens... you can't let something like that go down."
Westbrook agreed that the gardens factored into the city's decision to allow the University to water outside the prescribed time frames. She added that Durham conservation mandates may change as the drought continues. Should the city enact the next stage of the Water Conservation Ordinance, businesses will have to reapply for water use licenses and reduce water usage even further.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Kathi Beratan, a research scientist at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, stressed a need for those in charge of groundskeeping to connect with scientists at the Nicholas School and at the Pratt School of Engineering.
"I don't want to say they're doing a bad job, but there isn't a process out there that can't be improved," Beratan said. "It would be useful to make sure that practice connects with available science."