NEWS- Watered down: Gravity may help city stay green

Could gravity-fed watering do the trick on the Downtown Mall?

In February, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality awarded Charlottesville's Parks and Rec department the state's very first "E4" designation, DEQ's highest ranking for environmental stewardship by a municipal department. Some cynics might consider the award ironic since during any given week, up and down the Downtown Mall, the roar of a gasoline-powered water pump can be heard from Parks and Rec employees drenching the big black planters of flowers and shrubs. 

Lush vegetation is a luxury. Couldn't gravity-fed watering keep it thriving without the noise and pollution?

Brian Daly, the city's assistant director of Parks and Rec, calls the suggestion an "excellent idea," but admits that no one on his staff or from the citizenry had come up with the more pro-environment approach. 

He says the Downtown Mall plantings are ideal for using the gravity watering method, and he now plans to convert the pumps to rely on gravity for all the horticulture chores on the traffic-free Mall. But in many other spots, he says, gravity won't do the trick. For obvious reasons, plants that are higher than the truck carrying the water– such as those on the 9th-10th Street connector– require mechanized pumps to spew the streams. And for plants in the median of busy roads such as Route 250, Daly says, the department will continue to opt for gas-powered pumps to speed the watering process and move employees away from traffic more quickly. He points out that most of the motorized equipment the department uses– from pumps to leaf blowers– has "four cycle" engines, running solely on gasoline, rather than "two cycle" that burn a combination of gas and oil and often belch black smoke when operating. In the next few years, Daly says, all the city's motorized equipment will be four-cycle.

Gadfly Kevin Cox, always on the lookout for environmental issues, says while gravity-fed watering would be a small improvement over the pumps, Parks and Rec's energy and time might be better spent elsewhere.

"I'm kind of sympatheitc to the pressure they may feel," says Cox. "Gravity is slow." But, he adds, "It would be nice if they collected rainwater from the roof of city hall and used that to water the plants." Cox, who uses "rain collection barrels" at his own Woolen Mills home, points out that one inch of rain falling on a 1,000-square-foot roof creates 660 gallons. "That's a lot of water," he says. 

Daly says he hasn't heard any discussion about collecting rain, but points out that the water the city uses for plants isn't potable, but comes instead from irrigation ponds and from the Rivanna River.

Even without rain barrels, Daly points out the city is doing a lot to adopt eco-practices, as evidenced by the recent award.

"We've been really proactive to do the right 'green' thing in everything we do," he says.