Opinion: “The Green” is Not “The Brown”: Evidence of California’s Drought Absent on Campus

As Californians combat water scarcity and a consequential increase in cost with shortage of supply, replacement of lawn space (primarily composed of turfgrass, which has high water demand) with more drought-resistant native species is a viable option for reduced water consumption.

With the exception of a few spots on the M-A campus–between the early C- and D-wing classrooms and at the front of the PAC–there is a general lack of native landscaping; instead, green lawns prevail.

Granted, most of the lawn space on campus seems worthwhile, as students can be seen lounging about on the Green and other grass-carpeted nooks at lunch and for occasional classtime outdoor activities. Recently, the rains have resulted in less frequent noticeable lawn watering; however, in the balmy afternoons of previous years I’ve attended M-A, I remember students joyously dancing through the trails of water spouts during passing periods (and may I note, an untimely decision of watering, as the glaring sun causes the entrance of more water molecules to the atmosphere than it does to the soil).

“But,” you might say, “the rains have come and replenished our water reservoirs!” Unfortunately, that is not the case. Since Oct. 1 of last year to date (recorded on April 22) the Northern Sierras of California have received 26.8 inches of rain–only 60% of average levels. On April 1 (the date of normal maximum accumulation of snowpack for the rainy season, according to the California Executive Update of hydrologic conditions in CA) the estimated amount of liquid water contained statewide in the Sierra snowpack was determined to be at 15% of it’s normal level and 17% (4.3 inches) as of April 22.

Screenshot of an interactive map retrieved from the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA)

As the rainy season tapers and the long, hot California summer takes hold, drought conditions will only worsen. Governor Jerry Brown’s request on January 17th for voluntary reductions in water use by 20% still stands. As a result, across California, water companies are imposing mandatory regulations on consumption, and there are even water police in the Sacramento Valley to monitor consumers of excessive water.

In the interests of adopting conservative strategies for our water use on campus and district wide while acknowledging interests for maintaining lawn space, I suggest not the extensive removal of lawn turfgrass (at least initially), but rather the reconsideration of the species of ground cover used. According to a SUHSD landscape worker testing sprinklers in the C-wing whom I spoke with, the lawns on campus are likely Rye Fescue, a blend of Ryegrass and Tall Fescue. This seed mix is conventionally used as turfgrass; though it is tolerant of heat stress and its competitive seeding reduces weed competition, it is not drought-resistant and requires substantial watering to retain its desirable aesthetics.

Results of a study conducted by a group of students at UC Davis show that “native plants use an estimated total water use of 422 acre feet/year while turfgrass requires 1407 acre feet/year–a 60% reduction in water use.” The team at UC Davis determined that buffalo grass would serve as a viable alternative species to plant for desired lawn spaces.

Buffalo grass is similar to standard lawn turfgrass species in aesthetic and recreational appeal; it has lower water requirements and is native to the Western interior of North America, meaning that it is naturally adapted to the long, dry, hot summer season and short, late rainy season all too familiar to Californians. Some types of hybrid bermudagrass, specifically Tifway II (though non-native), are well-adapted to sunny conditions, retain their color in colder months, and withstand traffic effectively, according to the UC IPM (University of California Integrated Pest Management) Program.

The native garden between the early C- and D-wings.

In California, it is an unrealistic and irresponsible use of water to maintain expansive green lawns. Simply put, harboring the cultural expectation of maintaining expansive green lawns is quixotic due to the current environmental situation east of the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the lowland biome of Menlo Park and surrounding areas, there is naturally low water availability.

To fulfill our responsibilities of decreased water consumption as a public school district, avoiding water-intensive lawn species is a pragmatic option. Landscape irrigation likely constitutes a significant portion of the monthly water bill (November 2013 expenditures were $38,652.27 for total water use) of the Sequoia Union High School District, as SUHSD records show. Inefficient water spouts and toilets in M-A bathrooms may also contribute, and fixing this issue is another viable (though likely more costly) method of reducing superfluous water consumption.

If the M-A administration or landscape designers on the district level choose to take initiative in addressing the issue of excessive water use through replanting, it is important that the maintenance and watering schedule be adjusted, not only for the interests of conservation, but also because overwatering negatively affects native grasses and instead allows water-intensive, non-native grasses to flourish.

In the future, I suggest xeriscaping techniques are implemented to curb water use, which would include the planting of more native gardens in lawn areas that see little wear and tear, including those flanking either side of the administration building; I rarely encounter students sprawled in the grass outside Mr. Zito’s office or the teacher lounge patio. Should the vegetation in these areas be reconsidered, native garden spaces will surely satisfy both aesthetic and environmental interests on the M-A campus.