The Devil’s Bargain
Green grass, hot showers, and clean dishes in the dining halls. 740,000 gallons per day. One million dollars per year.
These figures on water consumption have long been accepted as the cost of the 5C lifestyle with little question about their sustainability or environmental impact.
Yet as northern water supplies dwindle and usage costs rises, the Claremont community is searching for water solutions.
Water and the Colleges: a historical perspective
Professor Char Miller, director of the 5-C Environmental Analysis program, says that there used to be streams which flowed through Claremont:
“The fascinating thing about the Pomona Valley is that the colleges and this whole valley lie atop a very productive aquifer,” Miller said.
When Miller was a student at Pitzer, water from the local aquifer was used to irrigate the citrus groves above Baseline.
“The smell of orange blossoms and lemons! There were days when the smog was horrific…but there were also days where the oranges just overwhelmed you. I met my wife here when we were both students at Pitzer and we’d go on these bike rides through the groves and they just knocked you out,” said Miller idyllically.
Claremont college students today don’t go biking through orange groves because the overpumping of the aquifer led the water table to drop. Once local water sources were depleted, citrus farming became unprofitable. Developers knew that controlling the flooding from Mt. Baldy could turn the farmland into a desirable neighborhood. Slowly, the groves were replaced by houses.
“If you want to live here and you want to live in a way that is in contrast to the natural system–intense rain, lots of flooding–then you have to control the natural system. Post 1938, every canyon along the San Antonio mountains was dammed,” said Miller.
Yet Miller added that because roofs and pavement are impervious surfaces, very little water can replenish the local aquifer. Though irrigation can suck water resources dry, farmland naturally allows the rain and streams to sink back into the vast expanses of exposed soil. Therefore, suburbanization is worse than agriculture from a water sustainability perspective.
“The ambition of California engineers is to have every drop of water that hits the pavement head directly to the sea at 60 mph. The amount of rain that can fall here is so great that it can produce flooding…This is ‘the wash.’ It is called that for a reason, if you allow nature to do what it does, can’t build anywhere in here, that’s why you build a dam and channel it.”
Essentially, the price the colleges and the neighborhoods north of the colleges pay for both the water supply and flood protection is whatever suppliers want to charge.
“The devil’s bargain is this: lets get rid of the water that’s local in favor of water from the Colorado river 200 miles away or from the Northern Sierras through State Water Project,” said Miller. “By in large at the colleges, water you use when you turn on the tap is from snowmelt from the Northern Sierras. Why? Because we can. It’s stupid because we are standing on a water resource of immense capacity.”
Miller says the imported water is only going to get more expensive as demand increases and global warming decreases the snowpack in the Sierras. The rising cost won’t affect all of the colleges equally, however:
“Pomona College is different in this story because it owns two wells. The way you get water in the West is by getting here first. Pomona has rights because we’ve been here 125 years… They went after water the moment they got here–they weren’t stupid,” said Miller. “Pomona sells the water at a very cheap rate to Golden State Water company, which in turn cleans it and sells it back to us at a far cheaper rate than any other college pays for their water. Much cheaper than Pitzer or Scripps.”
There is an alternative to buying water from miles away at any cost. Miller acknowledges HMC Physics Professor Dick Haskell’s water reclamation plan as a major component of this effort.
Haskell is no stranger to the water woes of the Claremont. He has served on the board of Sustainable Claremont Action, a local grassroot nonprofit, creating goals and writing policy to ensure the city’s environmental, social, and economic future.
While Haskell characterized the group as “just concerned, smart citizens who want to do something,” Sustainable Claremont has played an instrumental role in establishing the City Council’s adopted Sustainability Plan and setting the ambitious goal of reducing the city’s imported water by 80 percent by 2017.
Haskell began his efforts at the 5C’s in 2007, advising senior projects in water sustainability. While his students worked tirelessly analyzing the effects of shorter showers and higher efficiency toilets, they realized their changes would make little impact on the 60 percent of the water that was for campus for landscaping.
“It was so discouraging, it was depressing. The numbers made it clear that the problem wasn’t domestic, it was irrigation,” said Haskell.
The ultimate problem lay in the fact that high-quality, potable water was being used to irrigate over four million square feet of campus landscaping. In similar spaces, like public parks and golf courses, the Los Angeles County Sanitation Department had begun to use treated wastewater for irrigation. This safe and money saving process known as water reclamation had saved the County approximately 200 million gallons of water per day.
Envisioning the Colleges’ extensive network sewer lines under the campus as the replacement for expensive imported water, Haskell outlined a simple reclamation plan. Over the summer of 2011, Dustin Zubke HMC ‘13 worked closely with Haskell compiling the science, engineering, and financial aspects into a detailed report. Zubke’s efforts, which included actually lifting a man hole and measuring the sewage flow rates, brought remarkable conclusions.
“In addition to decreasing the colleges’ potable water bill, using 310,000 gallons per day of treated water for landscape irrigation would, in principle, allow the colleges to function almost independently of imported water and make the undergraduate colleges’ water use nearly sustainable,” Zubke concluded in his final report.
Zubke estimated that installing a water reclamation plant at the cost of approximately 5 million dollars would have the potential to save the colleges $400,000 per year and up to 20 million dollars in 20 years.
In February of 2012, Zubke culminated his research in a proposal pitch to the Claremont University Consortium Council of Presidents. The Council gave Haskell the go ahead to proceed with a professional engineering study.
While there are significant steps to be taken before even the first gallon is saved, including determining whether the LA County or the College have the legal right to the sewage, Haskell remains confident that the plan will carry through.
Haskell predicts the Council Presidents will be making a decision by the end of 2013, nearly eight years after the original inquires by concerned students.
“This has taught me that you just have to persevere. It’s been a long time but now we’re at the point that everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do. It’s a substantial amount of money and of course there’s risk, that’s why we need to do it very carefully,” he reflected.
Resistance to Change
Though a clear advocate for campus sustainability Zubke conceded that there are many challenges to future sustainability efforts,“There’s the social inertia, the resistance to change. There’s almost an attitude with the colleges of because we can use water, we do,” said Zubke.
However, Professor Miller believes student input could help change the trajectory of water use at the colleges:
“If sustainability is going to be a real project, students must voice concerns…[they] should voice their concerns through surveys and potentially political action because colleges are [going to be] building for next fifty years and this is the legacy that we leave the future, we have to take it seriously– students, boards of trustees, faculty,” said Miller.
Students can’t bring back the citrus groves which allowed water to percolate back to the aquifer far more than the pavement does. But they can influence the choices their colleges make about the future. For instance, Scripps’ is in the process of collecting input on how much students care about the LEED rating of the next dorms they build.
“We can build smarter buildings that capture runoff and precipitation, and allows it drain into the soil and the aquifers; we can construct pervious parking lots that let water seep back into the ground. Doing so will allow us to increase the amount of water beneath our feet and reduce our dependence on imported flow – this won’t solve all our water woes but it would be an important step in the right direction.”