The Capitol Campus’ grass is brown, and many of its plants are dry and pale, but the state Department of Enterprise Services is doing what’s necessary to preserve plant species — and protect the public’s investment — rather than maintain aesthetics.
Jim Erskine, spokesman for the Department of Enterprise Services, which manages the campus and several Olympia parks, says it was not mandatory for them to reduce water usage after Gov. Jay Inslee declared the statewide drought emergency, but they chose to take on a leadership role.
“We think it’s appropriate that the state cut back as well as everyone else,” he said.
The campus has cut its summer water usage 22 percent, both in the buildings and on the grounds. In 2014, the campus used 29 million gallons of water.
Horticulturist Brent Chapman said grounds staff is watering the grass often enough to keep it alive but not green. Grass is green around new plantings and trees that need water in their surrounding areas.
“We’re not worried about the turf, but it’s really the trees and shrubs where we’re trying to protect that investment,” Chapman said.
Some of the landscape has suffered heat- and drought-related damage, especially on the East Capitol Campus. Unlike the West Campus, the East Campus plants are not primarily native and the soil is shallow and has difficulty holding water since it sits on top of the plaza parking garage.
Those conditions make the plants there suffer much more than those in the average person’s backyard.
“The East Campus is basically a giant rooftop garden,” Chapman said.
To make things worse, there also are problems with the East Campus irrigation systems. Two leaks are being investigated and malfunctions with the drip irrigation method — underground piping that drips water into the soil underneath the plants — has caused major frustration.
Unfortunately the grounds staff have no way of knowing there’s a problem until it’s too late, since the irrigation pipes are underground.
“These plants are like their kids,” Chapman said.
As a result, 30-40 azaleas had to be removed and several shrubs and trees are showing signs of stress. Maple trees that were leafless two to three weeks ago have since been watered and have leaves again.
But Chapman said many other plants will not grow back.
Marathon and Heritage parks remain green, since they are watered with reclaimed groundwater. The Capitol Campus is uphill from LOTT Cleanwater Alliance and pumping the water uphill is costly, but it is the eventual goal.
“This year could be a motivator for the Legislature to strongly consider funding for that project,” Erskine said.
Chapman said the situation looks much worse to campus visitors than it is.
“It’s alarming when you see it, but really only 1 or 2 percent of plants have been affected,” he said.
Low-water gardening suggestions
▪ Water less often, but more thoroughly. Give the plants a deep watering every once in a while instead of watering them in short bursts every day.
▪ Add organic material to the soil such as mulched leaves or compost, which will increase the soil’s water-holding capacity.
▪ Choose new plants that are drought-tolerant.
Enterprise Services is responding to the statewide water supply shortage by:
▪ Stopping irrigation of campus lawns and letting the grass go brown and dormant.
▪ Not turning on the Tivoli Fountain and shutting down the Du Pen fountain outside the Pritchard Building and a small fountain behind the Governor’s Mansion.
▪ Irrigating well-established trees and shrub beds less frequently, deeply and before 10 a.m. or after sunset when the wind is calm.
▪ Inspecting, testing and repairing irrigation systems to address leaks and overspray.