S[H2O]wcase: Water as the new frontier of Conservation


Author: Emma Lodes

Water is essential. To some, access to it is a human right; to others, it is a limited resource; and to a few, it is an economic good. Its fluidity is profound and far-reaching. The droplets of water that rain upon the dusty desert hills around Los Angeles could have once composed a wave crashing into the shores of southern Spain. Or the brooding storm clouds of Oklahoma skies. Or frozen into a three foot dagger of an icicle, hanging off a rooftop in Alaska. Water is eternal, ageless. We use the same water today that the first life forms used millennia ago, reincarnated through the water cycle countless times.

This year, people at Occidental, in Los Angeles and around the globe are zeroing in on our most pressing water issues: sanitation, distribution, infrastructure and conservation. Water, in its varying forms, is and has been shared by the whole globe, but fresh water in fluid form is very localized, divided up into watersheds. Because watersheds (the area of land drained by a stream) aren’t divided [up between] national boundaries, disputes over accessing it abound. According to U.N.-Water, less than three percent of the world’s water is drinkable, yet safe drinking water is unavailable to approximately one billion people. And as fresh water sources shrink with global warming, the world’s population grows exponentially.

Water On Campus

Occidental College’s campus is an oasis of green, but the verdant grass, fruit trees and palms would not be here if it were not for the campus’s extensive irrigation and watering systems. Without the manipulation of water, our campus would look entirely different —covered in chaparral and other succulents native to Southern California’s arid climate. Conservation issues are engendered in the campus itself; this year, the administration has chosen to dive into the theme of water through the Cultural Studies Program (CSP) theme and six-part lecture series, and students are taking their own initiative to educate their peers on water. The college capitalized on grants from the Metabolic Studio and Annenburg Foundation intended to fund programming that pertained to water, in observance of the centennial anniversary of the Los Angeles aqueduct this November.

First-year opinions on the CSP theme are mixed. Politics major Miriam Hamburger (first-year) supports the theme but finds herself in the minority.

“People don’t really listen to the lectures,” Hamburger said. “Either they don’t come, or they are obviously doing something else. No one is stopping [those doing other things] because no one really cares. People were being really rude to the speakers.”

Many upperclassmen are often completely unaware of the CSP theme.

“I didn’t even know the theme was water,” politics major Zak Buschbach (junior) said. “It just doesn’t reach you if you’re an upperclassman.”

Apart from the administration-led CSP activities, students are gathering to address water issues through a student organization by name of “Water Awareness and Reduction of Pollution” (WARP). Amber Carmi-Smith, UEP major (senior) founded the club in order to address water conservation and contamination on a local, national and international levels.

“Water is the essential ingredient of all life on the planet, and without it we are nothing, have nothing, and that strikes a chord of motivation to take action,” Carmi-Smith said.

Carmi-Smith led the first meeting, which took place on Oct. 3. The trio has exciting goals for the semester, including fundraising for a water charity project through “Water Charity,” an organization that allows donors to contribute funds towards a water infrastructure or sanitation project in a developing country.

The WARP leadership is also eager to motivate students through art, which they see as a particularly moving and engaging method of communication.

“I want to be able to create our own infographics,” Carmi-Smith said. “It’s hard to understand the chemical compounds and numbers, so one way to engage the students and get them aware that we are living in a toxic water zone is to make that data more appealing and easier to understand.”

WARP plans to meet once a week on Thursdays at 4 p.m. in Johnson Hall. The group will use meetings to learn about water issues around the world via the leadership’s weekly presentations and brainstorm ideas for projects and goals centering around raising community awareness around water issues.

Water in Los Angeles

In 1900, the Los Angeles River was the city’s only water source, but the growing city sucked it dry. City planners were faced with a dilemma: either construct a massive engineering project to get more water or cease Los Angeles’ growth as a metropolis. This year is the 100-year anniversary of the project that solved L.A.’s water problem. William Mulholland, the chief engineer of L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District, found the water the city needed in Owens Valley, a predominantly agricultural valley to the east of Los Angeles. He embarked on a mission to get that water through the desert and to the coast, harming the livelihood of many farmers. Since then, Los Angeles’ water infrastructure systems have made it possible to create the largest manufacturing economy in the Western U.S. and a sprawling metropolis home to approximately 16.3 million people.

Still functioning, the aqueduct carries water hundreds of miles from Owens Valley to our taps in L.A. On the other hand, the L.A. River is nowhere near its former quality. The L.A. River is strangled by concrete, climate change and pollution to the point that in many places, virtually nothing can grow on its banks.

Poet, politician and founder of the non profit organization Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) Lewis MacAdams gave a presentation on the history and significance of the Los Angeles River in Thorne Hall on Oct. 9. McAdam’s presentation entitled “Poetry and Politics: A Forty Year Art Work to Bring the L.A. River Back to Life. A Report from 27 Years In” included a reading of several of his poems, which focused on the intersection of politics and the river. The talk focused on strategies that citizens can use to revitalize life in the river and transform it into a community gathering place.

“It took 40 years to screw the L.A. river up, and it will take at least another 40 years to bring it back to life,” McAdams said during his presentation.

Though the Army Corps of Engineers was once mandated to “channelize the river” by encasing it in a concrete shoot, FoLAR now wants the corps to remove four miles of the concrete to return the river to its natural habitat in order to reintroduce native species. Forty-two miles of the L.A. River are currently encased in concrete, and the 10miles that weren’t paved show their vitality through trees growing in the middle of the river’s flow.

“I’ve always felt like the river was worshiped by a concrete code,” McAdams said during his presentation. “People who worship concrete and want to see it everywhere. We had to convince people that the L.A. river could be a really nice place, a place that joined the city rather than divided the city.”

The L.A. River takes many different forms along its journey. It’s a dry, empty concrete tunnel that runs through downtown: a rushing creek surrounded by lush vegetation as it becomes the Glendale Narrows. McAdams has taken many initiatives to protect and celebrate the river, including annual river cleanups, hosting kayaking trips down the river and even placing himself in front of bulldozers to stop them from bulldozing the habitats that had developed within the river.

McAdams envisions a river that flows and whose banks are lined with moss and trees, one that is re-inhabited by life and that is reclaimed by the people. A river in which any citizen of Los Angeles can swim, kayak or picnic on its banks. He is passionate about the L.A. River in part because he finds it important to know about where one lives. Understanding one’s home, he believes, makes for better, happier citizens.

“I think that the reason to know it is because a lot of people from Oxy are probably civic minded public citizens,” McAdams said. “How we get our water, how our water is used, is a fundamental issue of civilization, especially in Southern California. Knowing about water issues will make us a much more educated governance on how to use and conserve water.”

Water Around the World

One billion people in the world currently lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people don’t have access to hygienic sanitation facilities. Around the world, humans are over-consuming water resources at an unsustainable rate. To provide enough water to sustain North American or European lifestyles throughout the world, the biosphere would have to almost triple its water resources.

This year Occidental College, L.A. and the United Nations are turning their focus toward water issues. The UN has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, part of a campaign to raise awareness surrounding the global problem of access to water and to develop sustainable solutions to water management and sanitation problems.

To support the United Nations’ 2013 initiative as well as the year’s CSP theme of water, the Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) department has developed a course called “Global Water Task Force.” Students in the Global Water Task Force class work with clients in the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) through researching water infrastructure and sanitation in countries in West and Central Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Students will write individual reports on a country of their choice, which will be consolidated into a report and accompanying graphics that will be presented to UNDP clients.

The course is co-taught by Professors Sherry Simpson-Dean and Sanjeev Khagram. Both Simpson-Dean and Khagram have professional backgrounds in global and local water issues. Simpson-Dean currently works for the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.

“I think that water is really the issue of this generation,” Dean said. “Issues around water touch on most major global concerns. And that is human rights, innovation, and poverty and hunger related to agriculture. Water makes or breaks a thriving society. In effect, water is the new gold.”

Water has been Simpson-Dean’s professional focus of late because she believes that solving challenges pertaining to water will lead humankind to a better capability for solving other global issues such as food security. This year, students can jumpstart their water education and activism here at Occidental.

“I think Oxy has really done an incredible job of investing in the inquiry around solving water challenges,” Simpson-Dean said. “Having a water task force taught by Professor Khagram and I is really an opportunity to make a global difference and to explore the local and national implications.”

Not all students in the Task Force class agree with the way the class is taught. Several students find the class to be disorganized, find the teachers difficult to contact or find the workload to be unbalanced.

“The class has enormous potential but basically because of its free form it’s weighted heavily on the second half, which is problematic for some,” DWA major Danny Tobin (sophomore) said.

Students in the Task Force class will also be creating projects for Johnson Hall’s new media wall called “Global Crossroads.” The wall is dedicated to the water theme for the year and already is filled with global projects from around the world dealing with water, sanitation, indigenous rights and innovation through images, videos and text excerpts.

Chris Gillman and Daniel Chamberlain spearheaded the system and are responsible for the creation of the project. Gillman wants the wall to be a means for students and faculty to say things that have an impact on the Occidental community and beyond.

“I want to create a place in which words become actions,” Gillman said in an interview.

Because of its staggering importance, the Occidental community, the Los Angeles community and the world are coming together and collaborate on sustaining our relationship to the essential substance. It’s easy to forget how integral water access is to human and economic development, not to mention natural life. Southern California is a fascinating example of the lengths humankind has gone through to bring water to growing metropolis and how water’s presence has dictated growth. Water is essential, undefinable, global and local; it touches the existences of billions of organisms every day.


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