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U Va Drought Shutdown*
Rumors Pour At U-Va. When Rain Doesn't
Conditions Leave College Town Battling More Than Drought
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 25, 2002; Page B01
With Charlottesville reservoirs threatening to dry up in just 88 days, some students at the University of Virginia have entertained thoughts of Christmas break starting around Thanksgiving.
Rumors of an early university shutdown were so pervasive in the past week that college officials Monday sent an e-mail to every student denying plans to send all 18,000 of them home early to conserve water. University officials said fall classes and exams will end on schedule -- 82 days from today.
"Closing early is not something that the university itself has talked about," said Louise Dudley, a U-Va. spokeswoman. "It's a leap from understanding how dire the situation is to the saying that the university will close."
Few doubt the seriousness of the water situation. The university is supplied by the municipal system, whose reservoirs are at 54.1 percent of capacity. City officials said that with no rain and unyielding consumption, they would run out of water in three months.
University workers, meanwhile, have been rushing around the school's grounds changing shower heads and faucets, turning down the air conditioning, closing pools and fountains and setting up portable toilets at Scott Stadium. During summer break, 216 water-conserving washing machines were installed in dormitories, and the dining halls are using paper goods to avoid dishwashing.
Water use has dropped by a third since the city and the university instituted mandatory restrictions and engaged in a public conservation campaign. But it has not been enough. City officials are considering more drastic steps if the reservoirs drop even more.
The city is asking the unversity and other customers to reduce water use by 20 percent and is increasing water rates to encourage conservation. But city officials say closing the university is included only in "doomsday scenarios." "That's the absolute last resort," said Maurice Jones, a city spokesman. The city is asking the unversity and other customers to reduce water use by 20 percent and is increasing water rates to encourage conservation.
Since students began classes Aug. 28, they have been bombarded with pleas, warnings, and directives on water use, and in recent days they have put aside their Homer and their Frisbees to ponder the effects of a truly dry campus.
"There are a lot of random rumors passing around," said Bethany Warren, a second-year student from Franklin, Va. "I don't know where the source came from, but a couple of my friends were told that if we don't get rain, school is going to close. If we run out of water, that's it. So what are we going to do?"
She's doing her part, though, which means taking shorter showers and turning off the air conditioning.
Matthew Laconte, a fourth-year student from Cheshire, Conn., said his fraternity president sent out an e-mail advising the brothers of Chi Phi to conserve. But Laconte said he wonders if the university administration ruled out closing early in order to dissuade students from "running showers 24 hours a day so we didn't have school anymore."
Laconte said he is conserving water when he can: "I had a test this morning, and I took the adequate shower I needed to relax."
The drought is also being put to use pedagogically. Benjamin C. Ray, a religious studies professor, said Tuesday he planned to include the current water emergency in a lecture on the Salem witch trials. He said the Puritans had a strong sense that sins are punished by failing crops, earthquakes and drought.
"I'm not trying to draw parallels, but it is effective teaching to make things relevant to today," Ray said.
He added that the campus is riveted by the day-by-day water updates. "I think it's very effective for the public to have a doomsday calendar," Ray said. "Every day, you know how little time is left."
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