The Stream of Conscience

In Claremont, California, we receive only 15 inches of water annually. Water management is, to say the least, a contentious issue both for the local community and for the private colleges that call Claremont home. Even so, water-intensive courtyards, lawns and grass quads are common features around the Claremont Colleges’ campuses, and have been since Ralph Cornell first envisioned the College’s Master Landscaping Plan as a “campus in a garden.” The landscaping may be beautiful, or at least reminiscent of the schools on the more temperate east coast, but it isn’t sustainable. In analyzing Pomona College’s water use, we may be able to better understand the challenges that institutions, and the larger community, face in attempts to use their resources more responsibly, and live up to the values they pass on in the classroom.

Where does Pomona get its water? How much does the school use annually and how is the water allocated? The answers to these questions have logistical value – that is, they tell us about the technical systems that affect our water use. However, these questions also interrogate the history and cultural values that inform our water use – from what is considered an “appropriate” length of shower, to vogue lawn design.

Luckily, water management has been well documented at Pomona College and within the Claremont community. For the facts and figures, public resources and documents have been indispensable. But numbers won’t tell the whole story. To understand the importance and politics of water within the community I found the best resources to be students and professors of the 5C’s, as well Claremont residents themselves.

Water Sourcing

About half of our water comes down from the foothills below Mount Baldy, percolating into the Thompson Creek Spreading Grounds (TCSG) to the north and west of Mills Avenue. The TCSG are approximately 120 acres of land owned by the Pomona Valley Protective Association, an organization started by citrus growers in 1909. The spreading grounds are part of the greater Santa Ana River Watershed, the largest in Southern California, which covers 3,000 square miles and contains over 50 tributaries.

To a pedestrian, the spreading grounds are a fenced-off wash of sage scrub, riparian and chaparral habitat. The Thompson Creek Damn, constructed in 1931 by the L.A. County Flood Control District, runs through the spreading grounds and appears as a stretch of dirt mounds. Large, high-tension power lines make a faint but audible buzzing noise, and various storm drain structures and industrial-style roads wind around the hills. Despite the variety of built structures, the area is expansive and fertile, and a 5-mile public wilderness trail leading up into the mountains buffers the spreading grounds to the north. Bordering the spreading grounds on the south is the more ubiquitous Thompson Creek canal, an L.A. County Department of Public Works storm drain running south and west, parallel to a pedestrian pathway.

The Thompson Creek Damn allows the Six Basins Watermaster to control how much water percolates into the aquifers below Claremont, in turn affecting how much water can be pumped from the area’s wells. The Watermaster is not one person, but rather a committee of representatives that meets monthly to establish a safe annual yield of water (currently listed as 19,300 acre-feet per year), allocate water rights to individual parties, determine the methods of “replacing” groundwater pumped in excess of a party’s share, and monitor for the threat of rising groundwater.

There are a number of different parties who own wells in the area, including the City of La Verne, the City of Pomona, the San Antonio Water Company, the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, the City of Upland, the West End Consolidated Water Company, Pomona College, and the Golden State Water Company. Pomona College owns two wells, the Giboney well and the Wilcox well. The school permits the Golden State Water Company to pump its wells, and is able to buy back the water at a fraction of the going rate; at least financially, the college feels little stress about its water use. The presence of the Golden State Water Company in the area is a controversial issue for residents, however, some of whom believe the city should purchase its own water rights like many of the other cities in the surrounding area. As water prices continue to rise each year, the city must comply with price demanded by Golden State, rather than being able to set their own prices.

The college’s two wells are essentially on-site. The Wilcox is at the intersection of College Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, and the Giboney well is at the northwest corner of Athearn field, behind the Frary dining hall. The Giboney well is named after John Giboney, the predecessor of the current head of the Grounds department, Kevin Quanstrom. As head of Grounds, Quanstrom plays a big role in the campus’ water use, making decisions about landscaping and infrastructure. In a tour of the Giboney well, Quanstrom explained that the well is not in constant use, but rather operates based on aquifer levels and water needs. Water is pumped up from the aquifer several hundred feet below ground, amid deposits of sand and gravel. The water is then treated and tested by Golden State, before the school is able to use it. Any extra water is put in a cavernous “excess pit” leading back down to the aquifer.

While water from our local watershed currently supplies about half of our water needs, the other half comes from northern California through the State Water Project, the largest state-built water development and conveyance system in the country. The Project was completed in 1971 and is run by the California Department of Water Resources. Power plants, reservoirs, lakes, storage facilities, canals, and pipelines all work to capture and convey water to 29 water agencies and over 20 millions Californians.

Water Allocation

The most recent information that is publically available on water use at the school cites an annual use of over 87 million gallons of water. According to a sustainability audit from 2006-2007, the school uses 3% of our water for sinks, 6% for showers, 6% for toilets and urinals, 10% for suspected leaks, 15% for other uses like washing machines, fountains, pools, etc. and 60% for landscaping. There is a lot of leeway with each of these uses; water used in the sinks and showers, for instance, is completely within the control of those who use those facilities. Suspected leaks, moreover, is a clear place to improve unnecessary waste, although there may be no simple solution for small or unknown leaks. However, the majority of leaks are caused by our high water pressure. To mitigate this, Grounds is systematically installing pressure regulators on irrigation equipment in order to reduce water use. Currently, 30-40% of the system is pressure-regulated. As for toilets, currently almost all campus toilets are 1.6 gallon, which meets the EPA standard for water-efficiency. 22 of 66 campus urinals are waterless, and over 150 toilets are dual-flush. The front-opening washing machines, similarly, are “water efficient.”

This leaves landscaping, using a whopping 60% of our annual water. The campus’ landscaping is maintained by the college’s Grounds department, and its practices are reported on the school’s website. According to public documents, we currently maintain 140 acres of campus, 30 of which are natural non-irrigated natives (dominated by oaks), and 110 of which consist of specimens, shrubs, groundcover or turf. With the existing specimens, Pomona recycles all green waste, including grass clippings and leaves, stockpiling the trimmings for use as mulch.

Despite the apparent lack of seasons in southern California, the evapotranspiration (or the combined water loss from evaporation and plant transpiration) and precipitation actually vary greatly depending on the time of year. Evaporation is generally highest in summer and lowest in winter, though fluctuations can be unpredictable. To account for this, our irrigation has run off of an automated central control system called Maxicom since 1993. A mini weather station in the Sontag Greek Theatre gives information to a computer, which then controls the watering schedule. Measurements on sunlight, wind, humidity, temperature, and rainfall allow the control center to calculate the evapotranspiration. Whenever we receive more than a half an inch of rain at one time, the entire system shuts off. The Maxicom system, in conjunction with our use of drip irrigation in favor of less-efficient sprinkler systems, means that our watering system itself is probably as practical as it gets.

What about the actual plants, then? This question is slightly more complicated, because plants have history, they have aesthetics. They have origins, cultural associations, heritage value, edibility, etc. In recent sustainability efforts, the Grounds department has made use of xeriscaping, or what it describes as “selecting the right plant for the right place, taking the location’s micro-climates… Drought tolerant plants are used for specific site and soil conditions when selecting replacement plantings as well as new designs” However, “the use of xeriscaping is somewhat limited by the College’s Master Landscaping Plan, only in respect to maintaining the College’s historic quadrangles and open space lawn areas.” Despite the limitations of our historic Master Landscaping Plan, though, Grounds has reduced pesticide and fertilizer use by mulching planter beds, removes unwanted weeds manually, and uses grass-recycling mowers (which collect the clippings for mulch).

Lit Review Section

In his short film, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” William Whyte looks at a number of different plazas in New York, remarking on the social dynamics that follow from the attributes of the physical infrastructure. Although Pomona College is not a city like New York, it is useful to draw from Whyte’s perspective and consider Pomona not as a set of statistics, but rather as a functioning and active community of students, faculty and employees, who move, live and learn in a particular space. This space is shaped physically and culturally by a history of people who have been in the area before, a specific climate and weather system, and the needs of the current community. Water is not only a valuable and limited natural resource, but it is the critical component in creating the aesthetics and quality of our outdoor spaces. In this way, water at Pomona is not only an ecological and environmental issue, it is cultural.

Because of water’s delicate position in our collective cultural psyche, public awareness and participation in water issues are paramount to being able to move forward. In his paper “A River Runs Through it: A College-Community Collaboration for Watershed-based Regional Planning and Education,” Richard Borden talks about the tendency of water issues to be outside the realm of public consciousness.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Union River and its accompanying watershed is that the river was largely invisible to the people in the communities through which it flowed. There was no formal or informal sense of shared stewardship or even a common interest among watershed residents. Many residents and visitors to the area did not know the name of the river, the extent of its reach, or its ecological, historical and social significance. At a very fundamental level a watershed is a physical entity, but as an idea it was outside of residents’ consciousness. To a large extent, creation of watershed consciousness has been one of the biggest parts of the college-watershed coalition project.

In an interview, Dr. Vandana Shiva, a renown activist and academic, voiced a similar opinion in slightly different words, saying, “When the awareness and consciousness of our living in the water cycle dies, that is when water culture dies. To me, water culture is the consciousness of water, the consciousness of being immersed in a water cycle, the consciousness of knowing that we are 70 percent water, and that the planet is 70 percent water, and to tread extremely lightly to ensure that water balance is not destroyed.”

The main problem here, then, is that we lack a strong “water culture”; very few students at the Claremont Colleges know where our water comes from, how it is used, and how unsustainable the current system is. And why would they? In terms of infrastructure, we are far removed from the process. The high fences and locked doors surrounding the Giboney well, for instance, keep out everyone except for those who are “qualified.” Water is something someone else takes care of, that someone else decides and maintains. There is a notion, I think, that you can keep your showers to under 5 minutes and be “doing your part.” But the issues of water in the area are far bigger than that, demanding a shift in values and system.

Colleges and universities have a lot of potential to catalyze change. In “Leveraging opportunities for campus sustainability: a case study of water resources,” Kristan Cockerill and Jana Carp explain that universities and colleges can often play a critical role in watershed management of the greater community. This is because universities are hubs of intellectualism, and may have the financial means to fund research or publicity efforts. Importantly, “This process includes both material changes on campus and cognitive changes in attitude and vision among decision makers. To achieve this step, stakeholders must recognize the need for change, disclose information, provide resources, and share both power and responsibility in process and outcome.”

Moving Toward Sustainability

In the summer of 2007, a group of students and faculty from the Claremont Colleges examined our use of electricity, natural gas, and water. What they found was that we were using twice as much water as what is sustainable. The main statistic, mentioned previously, is that almost 60% of the water we use as a college community goes on the foliage, most of it lawn or turf, while around 40% is used within the buildings, eventually making its way into our sewer system as greywater or blackwater. This opens up two major avenues for moving toward more sustainable use of water. One is the revision of our landscaping to include more native, drought-tolerant plants. The other, more ambitious plan, involves developing a purple pipe system to recycle the colleges’ greywater to satisfy our landscaping needs.

Physics Professor Richard Haskell of Harvey Mudd estimates we could satisfy 72% of irrigation needs with reclaimed wastewater. This reclamation system, referred to as a purple pipe system because of the addition of purple piping, would reduce the amount of water the whole Claremont community uses by an estimated 4%. And further, the system could serve as a model for the greater community. The water within our sewer system currently runs to a water reclamation plant in the city of Pomona, which has been in existence since the 1920′s. The effluent is sold to the city of Pomona, and other private customers. However, if we were to establish our own reclamation system, we could reuse our water up to four times before returning it to re-percolate into the ground.

In terms of revising our landscaping, we continue to be hindered by our adherence to the 100 year-old Master Landscape Plan. To strike a sort of compromise, I would propose a patch-by-patch analysis of the campus to evaluate the use and function of individual spaces. Marston quad, for instance, is used far more than the equally water-intensive lawn at the academic quad in front of Mason. The cultural, visual and habitat value of the plants used in a specific patch, as well as how they enable or inhibit particular functions of that space, are the main considerations when revising the landscaping. It is easier to sit and do your homework on grass, for instance, than it is on a xeriscaped patch. Trees will provide shade, fruit, and limbs to climb on, but perhaps use more water than a comparable succulent. Areas that are frequented on college tours or are in critical places around campus (the admissions department, or Alexander Hall, for instance) will carry particular importance.

We teach sustainability in our classrooms, declare efforts on our college website, and have even begun to make moves toward models of sustainability. Are we doing enough and are we living up to our word with current practices? The short answer is no. However, the challenges we face are not logistical; we have the financial and physical means to become more sustainable. Instead, we must address and overcome the cultural tradition of lush, expansive lawns, in an area that is not suited for them. Going forward will take collaboration and participation. We need to forge a new tradition and re-imagine spaces that are at once beautiful, functional, and environmentally-minded.