United Regional conserves water despite lack of restrictions

Courtney Betts

Derrick Pierce loads sheets into a industral sized washing machice in the United Regional laundry facilities Nov. 27.
Derrick Pierce loads sheets into a industral sized washing machice in the United Regional laundry facilities Nov. 27.

With lake levels declining and the city at the beginning of the stage 4 drought emergency, even high-priority facilities such as United Regional Health Care System are finding ways to conserve water despite the lack of restrictions from city officials.

“The City of Wichita Falls has not entered into negotiations with United Regional about restrictions yet simply because in our drought plan, health care is at the very top of the priority list,” Daniel Nix, public operations manager for the City of Wichita Falls, said.

United Regional partners with educational programs on campus and provides students with an additional learning environment.

“United Regional provides numerous learning opportunities for the respiratory care students,” Jennifer Gresham, department chair of the respiratory care program, said. “Students can apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired from the hospital in the classroom.”

Administrators and employees at United Regional attempt to expand the “go green” efforts by adding energy-efficient aspects to any future facilities. It would be too costly for the hospital to renovate current buildings with built-in energy-efficient appliances.

“We are always reminded to look out for leaky faucets or to limit running water,” Hailey McIntosh, senior in respiratory care, said.

Students in these health care programs see first-hand how important water use is to everyone in a hospital.

“United Regional shouldn’t have any restrictions put on them because a huge concern in hospitals are bacteria controls,” McIntosh said. “Hospitals aren’t the cleanest places — sick people are in and out everyday — so it’s important that us, as hospital employees, do all we can to stop the spread of bacteria.”

Members of the community, including students, have endured the drought for the past three years. As the stages of the drought increase, so do the water restrictions placed on residents, facilities and businesses. However, the hospital system is exempt even though it is the ninth largest user of water. In 2012, United Regional’s facilities consumed 36,688,652 gallons of water.

“The hospital in itself has a requirement to have to be able to exist for 96 hours if everything were to stop,” Rick Carpenter, vice president of facilities management at United Regional Hospital, said. “We don’t have 96 hours of water on hand currently, but we have ways of getting it.”

United Regional also has arrangements with the clinical laboratory science program, the athletic training and exercise physiology program, the radiology program, the respiratory program, the nursing program and the social work program. The hospital provides clinical education and field instruction among these various health care programs.

“I don’t believe there should be water restrictions at the hospital,” Amber Delozier, junior in nursing, said. “ Every time it is used, it’s for a purpose. It’s either to help save a patient or to help prevent hospital-acquired infections. I know they use a lot of water, but I don’t know how they would cut back without affecting patient care and patient safety.”

Although city officials do not require the hospital to have water restrictions, the administrators and employees of United Regional have taken a responsible approach to the drought emergency and drought disaster.

“We are just like everyone else and are subject to the same level of restrictions as the residents of the city,” Carpenter said.

United Regional is considered a general medical and surgical hospital. The hospital had 15,253 admissions in the last year and performed 3,412 annual inpatient and 7,100 outpatient surgeries. Its emergency room had 76,849 visits in 2012.

“We are seriously trying to take some water-conserving actions and I think the community has also responded well to conserving water,” Carpenter said.

United Regional employees stopped the sprinkler system for the lawn and have focused on keeping the trees and shrubs alive instead of the grounds of the hospital.

In 2012, administrators of the hospital resorted to putting TreeGator Bags at the bottom of their small trees to save them from dying. The landscape contractor at the time suggested this system because it does not require access to running water. Instead, the plastic container holds several gallons of water and allows the water to slowly seep into the ground at the base of the tree.

“So far we haven’t lost any trees,” Carpenter said. “It’s amazing how much a little water does to bring things back to life.”

Employees of the hospital have also gone out of their way to conserve water in other departments such as in laundry and linens.

“We have gone into a system similar to those of the hotels,” Carpenter said. “We won’t change your sheets every day unless they’re soiled or bloody.”

Staff also ask guests and patients to reuse a towel if they can. These provisions have cut the amount of water used in the laundry department down by 15 percent which translates to hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in the year.

“Sheppard Air Force Base and United Regional are two of the most important facilities in Wichita Falls so they are top priority,” Barry Levy, public information officer, said. “Although we don’t plan on putting restrictions on the hospital, we will go through any means necessary to provide them with the water they need and this includes the possibility of trucking in water.”

United Regional has contracts in place to be able to get water delivered to the hospital if an extreme emergency occured.

More than likely, the resources for water delivery to the hospital would come from federal or state funds Levy said.

“We could pretty much become self-sufficient with some help from these contracts set in place,” Carpenter said.

Administrators of United Regional have ownership of the old Wichita General Hospital on 8th Street and started demolition in October 2012. The hospital plans to build an 8th Street campus of United Regional in its place.

“The demolition of a building requires a lot of water,” Carpenter said.

Contractors must cover the land with a grassy lawn before the process of building the facility can even start. Right now, the land is covered with 70 percent of growth.

“We could sprinkle water on the lawn but that’s not enough,” Carpenter said, “so now we are setting up a system of big tanks and they are going to be filled with grey water. We will water every night until we get enough growth.”

Grey water is generally the relatively clean water left over from sinks, baths, washing machines and other kitchen appliances. It is often reused for landscape irrigation and it differs from sewage water because grey water does not contain human waste.

Carpenter said employees of United Regional previously used grey water to also power the entrances, but it caused a stench in the lobby so the hospital stopped using this system.

Although stage 4 causes some trepidation, United Regional has a back-up plan in place.