Falling Trees Reveal Depth of Claremont’s Drought Problem

With its stately foliage and academic ethos, Claremont certainly lives up to its reputation as “The City of Trees and PhDs.” Claremont’s rich biodiversity has been duly noted: For the past 22 years, the town has been among the recipients of the Tree City USA award. 

However, trees at the 5Cs have quietly been succumbing to the pressures of California's ongoing drought—a major threat to these vulnerable organisms and a looming pressure that may force the Claremont Colleges to rethink the verdant campus aesthetic that has long been a defining feature of the consortium.

“Walking around these campuses, it’s striking to see the number of trees falling,” said Char Miller PZ ’75, Pomona’s W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis. “The drought is really stressing out the biota.”

The dramatic toppling of an 80-year old sycamore near Frary Dining Hall in April, which resulted in the injury of four students, foreshadowed a tumultuous few months as a series of trees fell throughout the summer.

“Claremont has oak trees that have been around for 100 plus years,” Miller said, “so they’ve actually gone through many wet and dry cycles, but they couldn’t withstand this one.” 

Eucalyptus trees that line College Avenue have been especially weakened by the drought, evoking parallels to 1998, when a eucalyptus tree bordering Carnegie Hall crashed through a car and killed two Pomona College sophomores.

At Pomona, a resurfacing project on Bonita Avenue over the summer led the college to inquire about the health of the trees that line the street, according to Ginny Routhe, Pomona’s sustainability director. An arborist with the City of Claremont identified six unhealthy trees ripe for removal, and Pomona tore up the aging trees and planted 21 infant Mesa Oaks, which are native to Southern California. 

Fragments of Claremont’s history are lost with each dead tree, many of which can be traced back to the beginnings of each of the colleges.

Of course, the effects of California’s historic drought transcend the health of Claremont’s trees as the lack of rainfall has wreaked havoc on traditional water sources and raised pressing questions about the state’s water usage and allocation. Miller estimates that for the past four years, winter rains have not arrived at expected levels, leading to a near-insurmountable water deficit. 

2013 marked the driest year in Los Angeles’s recorded history as only 3.60 inches of rainfall relieved the thirsty landscape; for context, the city historically receives more than 15 inches of rain in an average year. California farmers—who supply roughly half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts—have been disproportionately affected by the lingering drought. An astonishing 80 percent of California’s total water is consumed by agriculture, particularly almonds, which singlehandedly consume a tenth of the state’s water resources. 

To curb personal water use, Governor Jerry Brown has pushed for extreme penalties for water waste. As of July 15, hosing driveways and over-watering outdoor landscapes can elicit a fine of up to $500 per day.

Glancing around the 5Cs, one would have to be hard pressed to find concrete evidence of the drought. Lush green grass and blooming flowers continue to pervade the landscapes of the Claremont Colleges. Each college uses its own irrigation to support the campus vegetation.

“We use a weather-based irrigation system called a Maxicom 2,” said Ronald Nemo, Pomona College’s Assistant Head of Grounds. “We have a weather station which we can pull up on site historical weather data. It’ll give us a list. It shows temperature, humidity, solar radiation, wind run, rainfall, evapotranspiration rate.”

Based on the output of the weather station, Pomona determines the quantity of water necessary to sustain the plants and turf. Since each campus has distinct water needs, comparisons between colleges of total water usage should be limited. Instead, tracking water usage within each individual college through the past five years is a good indication of the measures—or lack thereof—being taken to reduce water usage. In the last five years, for instance, Scripps’ total water use for both domestic and irrigational use has been trending downward, while Pomona has been creeping upward.


To promote the sustainable use of water, several colleges have implemented plans to remove turf and introduce more drought-resistant plants. Published in 2011, Pomona’s Sustainability Action Plan provides concrete recommendations that can be implemented to inculcate more sustainable practices on campus. Over the last few years, the colleges have started removing small sections of grass—most recently, the patch of grass on the west side of Marston Quad, and Scripps’ lawn on Platt Boulevard bordering Harvey Mudd College.

“I’ve tasked staff in identifying all areas of turf on campus that could conceivably be involved in a turf removal project,” said Brian Worley PO '71, Claremont McKenna College’s Director of Facilities and Campus Services. “We are in the process of prioritizing those areas, and we’ll be working with our landscaping consulting firm to institute projects where we remove the turf and do mulch, or remove the turf and add native grasses or water-tolerant, drought-resistant plantings.”

Students are increasingly lobbying their administrations to decrease water usage. Founded in 2010, the Ralph Cornell Society hopes to include more native plants on campus. President Aidan Orly PO '16 expressed concern about the relative lack of conversation geared around landscaping and water usage on campus.  

Students “do things such as prevent fracking and prevent these things that are outside of campus,” Orly said, “but I don't know how much conversation is happening about things that are happening on campus, and I think that changing the landscape on campus could be a good place to start.”

Given the scary possibility that the drought could broaden into a long-term problem, the 5Cs may have to begin redefining the campus aesthetic and the priorities of water usage.

“A lot of the plants on campus aren't native,” Orly said, “and that kind of follows the 'College in a garden' idea. I think that we need to redefine what we mean by garden.”  

The identity of the Claremont Colleges is so tied to the aesthetic of a garden saturated with emerald green grass and leafy trees that it may be challenging to envision anything else.

“A lot of what we take for granted in Claremont is that it’s green and beautiful and treed,” Miller said. “Going forward, it could be deeply difficult for us to imagine this place as green as it is currently.”

“We need to start thinking about a new aesthetic that is more brown than green, more conservative in its use of water—also in its type of landscaping that we place in the ground,” he continued. “This ought to be a conversation across all of the colleges about what looks right and works well and how we can do it with less water.”

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