Pomona’s Turf Removal Reaches Nearly All Corners of Campus

When Pomona College President James Blaisdell hired Ralph Cornell as the college's supervising landscape architect in 1919, he instructed him to create “a college in a garden.” Although Cornell was known for his love of native plants, the fields and plantings he designed for Pomona were more reflective of the founders’ vision of a 'college of the New England type' that would embody the aspiration to achieve the elite status of East Coast schools.

An East Coast-style college requires an East Coast level of water, however, and supplying that water in California's current state of drought has come into conflict with Pomona’s professed and advertised commitment to sustainability.

The college has undertaken a systematic turf removal campaign to make its 140-acre campus more sustainable. Over the summer, the grounds department removed 140,000 square feet of turf, bringing the total area removed in recent years to 350,000 square feet.

To meet the mandatory water restrictions imposed by the state of California, Pomona must reduce its water usage from its 2013 level of 100 million gallons per year by 32 percent. Because of the Level Two Water Shortage declared by the Claremont City Council in April, Pomona is also subject to restrictions such as having to water lawns at night and no more than two days a week.

“We instituted a lot of these practices before they were required,” said Bob Robinson, assistant vice president of facilities and campus services. “When the mandates came down, there wasn’t a lot for us to do.”

However, Robinson admitted that the mandates “have accelerated our time table.”

Robinson and Kevin Quanstrom, assistant director of grounds and housekeeping, both noted that the 32-percent-reduction mandate did not take into account the fact that the college had already taken numerous steps to reduce its water usage by the 2013 baseline.

“We’re asked to do more than a lot of other people,” Quanstrom said.

Pomona has still managed to fulfill the reduction mandate, however, according to Robinson.

Aidan Orly PO '16, Associated Students of Pomona College commissioner of environmental affairs, said that fulfilling the mandate is not enough.

“The regulations should be a baseline, and we should be going above and beyond that,” he said.

So far, Quanstrom said, turf removal efforts have primarily targeted “non-programmable areas,” grassy spaces that are purely decorative and cannot be used for events or activities. However, this category does not include one of the largest sources of water usage on campus: athletic fields.

“We don’t step on their toes,” Quanstrom said.

That caution is reflected in the discussion surrounding the potential removal of grass on the hammer-throw field, an area in the southeast corner of campus designed as a landing surface for the throwing implements used in track and field competitions. Although the grass on Claremont McKenna College’s hammer-throw field was removed this past summer, discussions about Pomona's field are just beginning. Most of the college's other turf removal projects are nearly complete. 

USA Track and Field, the governing body for hammer throw, does not require that hammer-throw fields have grass. The "Throwing Officials' Manual" states that “the surface of the sector may consist of cinders, grass, or other suitable substance on which the implement will leave a clear mark.”

Although the field has been used for weddings and other non-athletic events, Karen Fagan, director of public programming and college events, wrote in an email to TSL that such instances are infrequent.

In 2011, a proposal from ASPC’s Environmental Quality Committee to relocate the field sparked heated backlash from the Athletics department. Orly said that this time, every possible effort would be made to include the athletics department in the conversation about the future of the field.

“If we could find an alternative for the hammer throw, that would be chill… if it’s okay with us and athletics,” he said.

The new director of Pomona-Pitzer Athletics, Lesley Irvine, said that the athletics department works closely with the Department of Facilities and Campus Services, who she described as “great partners.”

Irvine said that she is open to potential changes to the athletic facilities to make them more sustainable, including replacing the grass on the baseball and softball fields with artificial turf.

"We are open to any conversation the college wants to have," Irvine said.

Quanstrom said that he would like the football field to be resurfaced with artificial turf, noting that the field is responsible for four percent of the college’s total water use. His main concern was that the hotter temperature of artificial turf might require more games to be played at night.

Similarly, Robinson wondered whether all the athletics fields in the consortium were truly necessary.

“Do we need two baseball fields? Do we need two football fields?” he asked.

However, there have not yet been any major projects replacing grass with artificial turf on any of the athletics fields. Other patches of grass near athletic facilities, such as the grassy slopes surrounding the Sthehle Track, also remain.

In contrast to Scripps College, where surveys were used to gauge support for various sustainability initiatives, Pomona’s student body was not informed that turf removal was taking place this summer until the Communications Office published an article touting the campaign in late July.

“We strive to be as transparent as possible,” Robinson said. “I’ve not had a lot of success in getting feedback."

Orly believes that it is important for students to provide such feedback. 

"I think students sometimes forget how important their voices can be,” he said.

Char Miller, a Pomona environmental analysis professor and member of the President’s Advisory Committee for Sustainability, expressed openness to the idea of removing Marston Quad. He even mentioned the possibility of relocating the college to a less drought-prone area, should the drought continue.

“The sacrifices should be big," he said "We should be the generation that makes those sacrifices.”

Miller also urged people to rethink assumptions surrounding their everyday practices.

“There are alternatives to what you assume to be the norm that are also normal and have the added bonus of being more sustainable,” he said.

The very concept of having lawns may be such a norm. Lawns in their modern incarnation were first planted by British aristocrats in the early 1700s as a way to display status.

“The servant-mowed lawn stood, eloquently, for the power structure that made it possible: who but the very rich could afford such a pointless luxury?” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a 2008 article in the New Yorker.

Conceptions of the ideal lawn have changed over time. For instance, clovers used to be considered attractive lawn elements, but after herbicides came about in the 1940s and killed them off, they came to be seen as little more than weeds themselves.

Today, it may be necessary to redefine our aesthetic ideals again—this time, perhaps, moving away from the idea of lawns as central elements in a landscape.

Robinson pointed to Pitzer’s landscape as an example.

“It’s still a garden, just a different style,” he said.

Quanstrom said that replacing the new mulch with native landscaping will be a priority for Grounds over the coming months.

“We can still be a college in a garden while using less water,” he said.

Updates: This article was updated Oct. 14. It originally indicated that Pomona College must reduce its water usage by 32% to 100 million gallons per year. Pomona College used 100 million gallons per year in 2013 and must reduce by 32% from that level.