Students map water usage and irrigation

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A screenshot of the arcGIS map of Occidental’s irrigation system, showing the location of specific sprinklers and how they are connected. Maggie Smart-McCabe

In a culmination of over a semester’s worth of investigation, research and planning, a team of five students plan to release the results of an irrigation mapping project to increase the sustainability of Occidental’s irrigation water usage. The end result of the project, to be published over the summer, will include an online map, a summary of the research they collected and a set of recommendations for how to move forward. Throughout the research and mapping process, students discovered that understaffing within the Grounds department puts a strain on workers, according to Maggie Smart-McCabe (sophomore).

According to Head of the Grounds department Thomas Walters, the project will help the college get a grasp on the volume of its water usage.

“Once we started looking into it, I realized all of the maps and all of the information we have is pretty old and outdated, and not all of it matches — so there were inaccuracies and we kind of discovered that we needed to overhaul the information that we had,” Walters said.

Smart-McCabe and Gabriel Barrett-Jackson (senior) began the project in Fall 2017 for Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) 246: Campus Greening. Ellie Amann (junior), Triana Anderson (senior) and Tali Bar Yaacov (sophomore) joined the project Spring 2018. Some of the students involved in the project received funding as project coordinators from the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fund (RESF) while others took on the work as part of an independent study for which they received credit.

The students worked in partnership with Walters, Irrigation Technicians Miguel Aguilar and Jesse Montanes, UEP Professor Megan Bomba and Sustainability Coordinator Jenny Low.

The limitation of the maps of the irrigation system on Occidental’s campus made it difficult to assess the success of sustainability initiatives, according to Smart-McCabe.

“Due to employee turnover, inconsistent recording of infrastructure projects and conflicting data from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, there is not a collection of comprehensive data on the system. This means that a good portion of the current irrigation system is recorded only by memory, and that it is almost impossible to do localized water usage assessment by specific water meters,” the team wrote in a project description of the independent study.

The team will release a map of the irrigation system they recorded Summer 2018 by manually testing parts of the system with Montanes and Aguilar. During this process, Montanes and Aguilar used a remote control-like device to turn on sets of sprinklers, allowing them to learn how parts of the system are connected. Students used technology called arcGIS, an online mapping software, to compile the information they collected during their research.

According to Walters, using this open-sourced, public digital mapping service will not only allow the Grounds department to digitize their irrigation map, but it will allow them to add utilities from other departments onto the same base map in the future.

Because no current maps of the irrigation system exist, any initiative to increase the sustainability of Occidental’s irrigation system will lack an adequate way to track its progress, according to Low.

“We want to move ahead with these projects, but we have no idea what the level of impact is. So the map will become a huge help with that. Because once we track [the water usage], we can say these changes in our processes, these changes in our landscape, these changes in our behaviors, actually made a difference,” Low said.

The project will also include recommendations aimed at Occidental’s administration, including information about the treatment of workers in the Grounds department, according to Bar Yaacov and Smart-McCabe. During their mapping and researching process, students found that workers within the Grounds department face challenges due to understaffing. Currently, Montanes and Aguilar are responsible for managing Occidental’s irrigation systems, but they often take on other duties.

“We’re in Southern California, and it’s hot, and it’s really difficult to be doing the work that they’re doing, especially with so few people,” Smart-McCabe said. “I think that there’s a lot of stress on the workload since there’s a lot less workers in Grounds now, and not only does that mean that people have to do work that isn’t under their job description really, they’re just doing a lot more work in a lot less time.”

According to an unofficial document obtained by The Occidental, the Grounds department had 23 employees in 1991. There are currently 12, according to Walters.

“We’re certainly quite understaffed and under-resourced for the workload, in my opinion. I’ve made it clear, I’ve made recommendations and observations since I started here,” Walters said. “And then as time went on and I observed how everything is set up, and then compared that to the overall workload, it became clear that there’s just too much work to do for what we have and what we’re working with as opposed to that people weren’t working.”

Students sometimes misunderstand the actions of workers in the Grounds department, according to Bar Yaacov.

“I wish there were more of a connection between the people who work for Grounds and the student body, because I think a lot of the time when something goes wrong it gets blamed on Grounds, you know, when you see big spreads of grass and there’s all these sprinklers going and someone will be like, ‘Oh, that’s so wasteful.’” Bar Yaacov said. “But they do work really hard.”

Because of the lack of current mapping and the complicated nature of the irrigation system, the students faced challenges in some logistical aspects of their project. While they originally set out to map the irrigation system via meters, which bring water to campus, the students decided to instead undertake a less complicated system of mapping the water usage.

“What we’re starting the project with is most of the above-ground parts of the irrigation system, and then we’re hoping that this is a stepping point for facilities to move forward and also collaborate more with sustainability in order to use data-driven efforts to further promote sustainability on campus,” Smart-McCabe said.

The group also hopes that the impact of the project will spread to the student body and the staff.

“I hope that people read about it and really understand how incredible the staff is, because they do so much for this campus and a lot of what they do is just trying to make it a home for us, and feel like it’s more beautiful, and so we feel comfortable here,” Smart-McCabe said.