Pomona College’s fountains made quite a splash when students walking to class on Monday, Oct. 12 found water flowing through some of them after having been turned off for months.
Given the severe ongoing drought in California, on April 1 of this year Governor Jerry Brown mandated that the state reduce water usage by 32 percent from the 2013 level. Pomona’s fountains were subsequently turned off this April in an effort to conserve water. As of September, the Claremont Water District, which includes the Claremont Colleges, had reduced water usage by 45 percent, exceeding the state benchmark. In October, four Pomona fountains were turned back on.
“I was walking downtown in the city of Claremont, and I saw their fountains back on, and I saw the other colleges had their fountains back on, so Pomona was the last entity in Claremont to have their fountains off,” said Bob Robinson, assistant vice president of facilities and campus services.
However, some community members, including Pomona Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller, said they were disappointed to see the fountains turned back on.
“I’m dumbfounded that what seemed right and appropriate and sustainable in August doesn’t seem right or necessary by October,” Miller said.
Robinson said that the relatively small amount of water that the fountains use was a factor in the decision to turn them back on.
“Given that they don’t use a lot of water, we just thought it’s okay to do a slight balancing act between aesthetics and our environmental stewardship,” Robinson said.
Several Pomona seniors, including ASPC Environmental Representative Aidan Orly PO ‘16, were told about the fountain decision before the fountains came back on, but the majority of the student body was not notified in advance.
“We asked if the information could be more widely disseminated to the student body, but it was not,” Orly wrote in an email to TSL. “I was sure students would prefer to hear from those that did make the decision about the change.”
Other students also observed a lack of transparency from the administration on the decision.
“I feel like right now the sustainability efforts dialogue on campus isn’t really open to students, exemplified by the fact that we didn’t really know about the fountains being turned on until they were turned on,” Eco Rep Chloe An PO ‘18 said.
Robinson said that the facilities department must try to meet the needs and concerns of various groups in the community when making decisions about sustainability.
According to Orly, the fountains serve to inspire a sense of community for many students.
“I understand that students gather around fountains, and there is a long tradition of fountaining at this college that a lot of students want to pass on,” Orly said.
Robinson noted that the fountains may have some practical benefits.
“If you’re sitting around Smith Campus Center, and you’re trying to study, that white noise behind you is relaxing,” he said.
However, Miller questioned the environmental cost of the fountains’ beauty.
“I understand that that white noise is lovely. I love it too,” Miller said. “But it also reminds me that I’m choosing an aesthetic over reality.”
Fountains recirculate water and are only refilled once a significant amount of water has evaporated. Robinson said that going forward, the facilities staff will measure the amount of water put into the fountains every month.
“We’re going to look at it closely, and if we need to, we’ll shut them down.” Robinson said.
Although Robinson said that signs are being prepared to explain that the fountains’ water is recirculated, some students still expressed concerns.
“No matter how little water fountains use, it is still a public display that gives the message that Pomona is willing to use water for a fountain when communities in this state have no tap water,” Orly wrote.
Miller also noted negative messages that may be conveyed by turning on the fountains.
“It’s really obvious when a fountain is running, you’re basically telling the state, ‘We’ll meet the mandate, but we’re not going to do more than that,’” Miller said. “And for the casual observer who doesn’t even know that part of the story, it looks like we’re flouting the law.”
Some students, however, do not see the benefit in turning off the fountains:
“Keeping the fountains on is fine, because to keep them off is to have a pretext that keeping them off actually does anything in terms of saving water,” James McIntyre PO ‘19 said.
Orly wrote that the fountains’ overt use of water does not negate the value of other water conservation measures Pomona has taken.
“I’m glad students care about the fountains, but I hope our care translates into our personal actions that we take every day, because we can say, ‘Administration, Pomona, change this,’” Orly wrote. “But it’d also be great to see what students are doing in their own lives to conserve water. It’s on all of us to save water and be environmentally aware.”