Occidental lags in California drought awareness

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Los Angeles defies the mold of most major global cities. We throw New York’s “scenes” scene to the curb, preferring individualistic attitudes and mingling between artists, actors, socialites and politicians. European-style public transit? Angelenos pick their hybrid Prii any day. Most unique among the cities of the world, however, is the vast area of L.A. dedicated to personal green space. Lawns and lavish landscaping not only add to the high standard of natural beauty beloved by Southern Californians, they embody the egoism and arrogance exacerbating the current drought crisis.

Driving through many parts of L.A., one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of a major drought. As a city that often revolutionizes fads, it’s time Angelenos turn against their traditionally well-watered lawns and announce sustainable landscaping as the latest trend. Occidental College, as a leading institute of higher education in Southern California, must lead the charge.

Given the severity of the current drought, saving water goes beyond the usual “save water, save money” rationale. We should be spending money to save water; if we don’t, we will run out. Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, predicts Southern California will run completely dry in roughly 12-18 months. If there was ever a time for the citizens of Los Angeles to band together to prevent certain disaster, it is now.

Occidental students should be shocked when peering outside their windows to see the Dantean scene at hand: beautifully manicured lawns, bubbling fountains, tropical and continental plants and spray-washed sidewalks.

Among our much browner peer institutions across Southern California, Occidental is shockingly green, and not in a good way. East of Los Angeles, Azusa Pacific University (APU) is adapting to the state-wide restrictions. Ironically, Occidental is ranked by the Princeton Review as the school with the 17th most liberal students in the U.S. This is applicable, certainly, as our current level of water use is quite liberal, to say the least.

“APU is doing its best to comply with the present Phase III drought restrictions. We have turned water off completely on our lawns that border the streets that pass our East campus and living areas,” APU’s Manager of Landscape Services Randy Berk said in an e-mail.

“These areas significantly affect the look of our campus to the public, but these areas are little used by our students.”

Furthermore, APU is replacing nearly 10,000 nozzle heads with MP Rotator sprinkler heads to reduce the precipitation rate of on-campus watering.

At Chapman University, in Orange County, sustainability managers spent over $35,000 during the summer replacing on-campus hardware and implementing weather-based irrigation. The hardware retrofits alone will save an estimated six million gallons of water, and Chapman’s new irrigation system intelligently responds to the water content of the soil, only watering plants when dry.

Occidental College currently lags in combating one of the greatest environmental crises California has ever faced. It is time to drain fountains, stop watering lawns, replace water-thirsty plants with drought-resistant alternatives and sweep instead of spray. There may be an expense, but the college cannot continue blatantly abusing the privilege of unchecked water use.

Current Los Angeles drought restrictions ban spraying water on “any paved surfaces including, but not limited to, sidewalks, walkways, driveways, and parking areas.” Yet many mornings, the stairways and sidewalks of the Marketplace, Haines and Weingart Halls look as though Amazonian rains drenched the campus the previous night.

In order to supplement the numerous efforts made by facilities management staff, the college needs to set aside resources and establish an emergency fund to invest in the continued sustainability of the campus’s landscape management. The college should aim for water conservation above the minimum requirements of the law instead of failing to comply with the legislation already in place.

Southern California’s water culture is inherently unsustainable. Though residents may pride themselves on spurring progressive political policies and social justice issues, current consumption levels in Los Angeles rely on the prolonged hijacking of ecosystems in Central, Eastern and Northern California, along the Colorado River watershed and in formerly water-rich areas of Southern California. It’s time the nearly 13 million residents of the L.A. area responsibly use the resources sacrificed for them.

As a leading, reputedly liberal institution, Occidental needs to lead the pack in areas of sustainable development. We have planted drought-resistant plants on campus, but students, staff, faculty and administrators must continue to challenge landscaping norms. Occidental’s campus is often noted for its endless beauty; but in times of severe drought, ignorance and entitlement are never beautiful.