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It’s Not Easy Being Green: With Water Scarce, Should Campus Lawns in California Go Dry?

August 14, 2014
by Glen Martin

As California’s drought drags on, is it time for universities to shut off their sprinklers and bid their velvety, emerald-green campus lawns farewell?

That’s the question posed in a recent Berkeley Blog post by UC Berkeley law professor Daniel Farber, who doubts the appropriateness of lush campus quads in this increasingly desiccated era. Yes, “some of us would have to live with our nostalgia for the quads of the past,” he acknowledges. “There would be transition costs, although over time money would be saved from reduced use of water, pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuels for mowing. But going down this road would not only have direct benefits for the environment, it would also provide demonstration projects about how other public spaces could be similarly redesigned.”

So how does Cal justify luxuriant greenswards such as Memorial Glade when farmers in the Central Valley are screaming about water strictures, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta has virtually no freshwater outflow to the great detriment of its fisheries, and average folks aren’t supposed to wash their cars?

For starters, administrators stress that Berkeley (like all UC campuses) has a water sustainability program in place, and it’s on track to reduce potable water use to 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2020.

Other factoids in the university’s favor:  Total potable water use on campus has dropped 6 percent since 2008. A “lawns to meadows” program has transformed several high-maintenance, perennially thirsty campus lawns into landscaped spaces featuring ground covers, perennial plants and “native sods.” Most of the campus’s irrigation systems are fully automated, and programmed to operate at night, deploy the minimum amount of water necessary, and shut off if conditions portend rain. The university also taps from two wells on campus to supplement irrigation, and the law school reuses 24,000 gallons of rainwater on its grounds.

UC Berkeley water use

Although grassy commons seem like a massive waste of water, irrigation accounts for only 8 percent of UC Berkeley’s water budget—less than the amount used by the campus’s steam plant. The biggest increment by far goes to the university’s buildings, including dormitories and residence halls. They account for 71 percent of water consumption.

And yet, like Caesar’s wife, campus water policy must be beyond reproach, at least during this period of devastating drought.Irrigation may be to blame for only 8 percent of the campus’s total water consumption, but even so, that amounts to some 50 million gallons of water a year. And green quads can look like a strong indictment of waste. So should we let them shrivel and die?

Not so fast, says Christine Shaff, the communications director for Berkeley’s Real Estate Division. We can have both water conservation and lawns, Shaff contends; in fact, the university accommodates an unwritten imperative of providing both.

“The University of California is more than a campus,” Shaff says. “It also functions as a park. What that park looks like has changed over time, and probably will continue to change. For example, Strawberry Creek is one feature of the park component, and it has been increasingly managed to emphasize its natural values.”

But lawns are another part of the park component—a very important one, continues Shaff.  “People expect green commons. They enjoy them, they want them. They use them for relaxing, for recreation. They’re part of the traditional campus landscape, and we feel an obligation to maintain at least a portion of them. We’re always looking for opportunities to save water and convert areas from lawns to other types of landscaping.  But it would probably be difficult for people to accept, say, Memorial Glade as anything but lawn.”

Further, says Shaff, you can’t just let a lawn wither and expect to revive it when the rains return. “Letting a lawn die is a big decision,” she says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It takes a lot of work and money to restore it.”

Early reaction has been mixed to Farber’s blog has been mixed.  “THANK YOU for bringing this up finally!” wrote one commenter. “As a College of Natural Resources/Genetics and Plant Biology student, I’ve been irritated by those lawns ever since I arrived.”

But even people who wanted change didn’t seem to favor xeriscaping with jumping cholla and mesquite.

“No! We just need to plant turfs that require less water like the one UC Davis and UC Riverside invented—UC Verde Buffalo Grass; 70% less water than normal turf.”

Other UC campuses are also responding to the water reduction mandate. UC Santa Barbara has installed waterless urinals, and irrigates landscape plantings of drought-tolerant native bunch grasses with reclaimed gray water. At UC Irvine, recycled water accounts for 95 percent of landscape irrigation. And at UC Santa Cruz, water consumption has dropped 40 percent due to radio-controlled irrigation systems.

But is anyone talking about going cold turkey with lawns? Just plowing up all the grass and letting a thousand cacti bloom?

“Not that I’ve heard of,” Shaff says. 

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