Pomona: Sustainable or Hypocritical?

I was walking back from Frary the other night, passing Oldenborg on the way back to Wig. I had just indulged in a delicious snack, complete with a couple double-chocolate chip cookies and a cold glass of two percent milk. I was ready to return with renewed strength to my Tuesday night homework—or just chill with my spiblings a little longer—when suddenly I was distracted by a large pool of water in my path. I looked up to notice that sprinklers outside Oldenborg were spraying water wildly across several sidewalks, forcing a stream of returning snackers to take a detour into the street. A torrent of water rushed down the gutter, disappearing into the gurgling storm drain.

I was outraged, to say the least. How hypocritical can Pomona College be, lecturing us on sustainability and expecting us to take five-minute showers, then wasting thousands of gallons on inefficiently-maintained grass? For that matter, why should Pomona have so much high-maintenance grass on campus when we live—as the stickers on our bathroom mirrors constantly remind us—in the middle of the desert? Pitzer, after all, has made a point of replacing areas of landscaping with more suitable plant life: cacti and other bizarre desert plants. If Pomona truly cared about sustainability, I thought to myself, maybe they would do something about this wastefulness.

Incensed, I went to confront Bowen Close, the director of the Sustainability Integration Office (SIO), about her office’s seeming lack of awareness of such poor water management. However, once we began talking I realized the problem was not so simple and that many people have been working hard behind the scenes to combat this very issue.

In fact, Pomona’s landscaping methods have improved drastically in the last few years as the administration strives to be more and more sustainable. Working alongside the SIO, maintenance staff have instituted a biweekly watering schedule, replaced areas of grass with native plants, begun resodding with a strain of grass that uses less water, and replaced many sprinklers with drip irrigation. New technology—weather systems, pressure regulators and more—has been installed to reduce Pomona’s water usage.

Maintenance has actually replaced a lot of thirsty plants with native flora in surprising places. The shrubbery around the Smith Campus Center, for example, is mainly native and low-maintenance. It doesn’t get much attention because, unlike Pitzer’s cactii, they don’t look like they were designed in Kurt Vonnegut’s nightmares. Pomona has focused much more on the practicality of their vegetation than giving the appearance of sustainability.

Pomona’s efforts seem to have made a significant impact. During the 1999-2000 academic year Pomona used over 124 million gallons of water, but last year usage had dropped to around 86 million gallons of water. In other words, the school has managed to reduce water usage by over 30 percent in the last ten years.

So why is there still water on the sidewalk?

The reason is threefold. First, there are still some technical limitations to the solutions that have been put in place by our hard-working maintenance staff. Although they are “systematically installing pressure regulators,” 60 to 70 percent of sprinklers are still unregulated and may suffer from malfunctions due to the enormous amounts of pressure in the pipes. Second, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, sprinklers break. With bikes, longboards, scooters, and inebriated college students stumbling around campus, exposed sprinklers are often trampled under foot and wheel.

Third, a powerful force in the Pomona administration has been working very hard to keep grass as prominent as possible on Pomona’s campus. You see, while maintenance staff were removing turf over the summer, the Office of Admissions was laboring on a different type of sustainability: to maintain Pomona’s image as a garden oasis in the middle of the California desert. I’m sure you read the same sort of advertising for Pomona when you were applying to colleges—“the Ivy League of the West” and a “garden oasis in Southern California”—complete with a large number of pictures on the school’s website of students sunbathing while studying or throwing a frisbee on Marston Quad. Admissions has worked too hard and relied too heavily upon that California oasis image to give it all up for the sake of sustainability. While conservation may be good for the school, so is a high volume of applications.

Nor should Admissions stop selling Pomona as a Southern California oasis. We all came to Pomona at least partially because of that image. It is part of Pomona’s essence. I too enjoy relaxing in the grass on Marston Quad and playing soccer on Wig Beach. Even Pitzer has maintained grass in some areas for its students to enjoy. Ideal as it may be to minimize water use on campus, anyone who has ventured into the San Gabriel Mountains and the other wilderness surrounding Claremont can tell you that a return to 100 percent natural landscaping would be less than comfortable. Clearly, we have to be realistic with our sustainability goals.

So where does this leave us? We have come a long way from our old consumption habits, but we still have a lot of progress to make. The sprinklers are still drenching the sidewalks; we still use too much water preserving this beautiful campus. But don’t worry, Sagehens, the SIO is working on it. Our changes may not proclaim our sustainable superiority as loudly as Pitzer’s, but that isn’t the purpose of sustainability anyway.

If we want to make fresh lawns a prominent feature of Pomona’s campus, we have to accept that water will be just as conspicuous.But next time you see a sprinkler dousing the sidewalk, say something to the Sustainability Office. Let them know where the problem is, and maybe you won’t have to walk in the street next time.

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