Going, going, gone: UC Berkeley’s dying grass and why it matters

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The quad, I think, is the most universal notion of all those notions that together form the American conception of “the college experience.” What else can be called so quintessential? The frat party, “Big Game” and 500-student lecture are foreign to too many small colleges, and the image of stately old buildings and avenues neatly lined with trees contrasts sharply with the hodgepodge of architecture and landscaping at big schools such as UC Berkeley. There are vaguer ideations, I suppose — the professor in khakis and tweed; a library, fluorescent-lit, at some late hour. But every college quad has grass. What school doesn’t have grass?

In this severe drought, UC Berkeley increasingly does not.

Upon returning to the campus in the fall, I wandered through it with a kind of dull shock. Much of the grass was sickly yellow, dying amid the equally parched dirt. Staked in the dust were signs proclaiming the imminent installation of “drought-tolerant landscapes.” The smell of freshly laid mulch, the grass’s replacement, hung in the air. There was suddenly something sinister in the flat, unblemished blue of the sky.

Half of the grass that once defined UC Berkeley’s landscape was gone or dying, practically overnight. And yet there was remarkably little dialogue about it. Google News searches for “UC Berkeley drought-friendly landscape,” “UC Berkeley grass” and “Berkeley drought friendly” yielded no recent, relevant results. The homepage of UC Berkeley’s sustainability website led me to a report on the campus’s efforts to reduce water consumption, but only two or three sentences were allotted to the transition from grass to drought-tolerant landscapes and the reduction of irrigation. I wondered how we could be so indifferent. Why was the desiccated sight of our campus not the perpetual headline of The Daily Californian when less than a year prior, the Daily Clog had been profiling the very lusciousness of our lawns?

I soon realized the obvious answer: It was not news. The drought has been a fact of Californian life for years now, and UC Berkeley’s efforts to reduce water consumption go at least as far back as far as the 2007 ASUC elections, when students voted to pay $5 a semester to fund green initiatives on campus — one of which is the transition to the drought-tolerant landscapes we’re seeing now. Seven years ago, the campus even installed computerized weather systems that sense wet weather and automatically pass on that information to the campus’s irrigation system in order to maximize the utility of rainfall. In short, the people in charge of landscaping and managing our physical campus are very drought conscious — but are we?

In the Bay Area, with a breeze coming in off the sea and water gushing instantly out of our faucets, it can be easy to forget a drought is even happening. We are encouraged to take shorter showers. People take to saying, “Hey, we’re in a drought!” facetiously. This isn’t Kansas in the Dust Bowl, or the Central Valley, where the frantic pumping out of groundwater is literally causing the earth to cave in on itself à la some terrible apocalypse film. Much of California is in a serious state of emergency, but in our corner of the state, we could, if we so chose, live in complete ignorance of that fact. In allowing its students to see their campus wither as the school conserves water, UC Berkeley has awoken us to the scorched reality in which our fellow Californians are living.

It isn’t that campus irrigation constitutes most of our school’s water usage: According to Christine Shaff, a UC Berkeley spokesperson in the school’s real estate department, irrigation represents a miniscule 8 percent of the campus’s overall water consumption. In fact, half of our water use is domestic — i.e. in kitchens, bathrooms and showers. A startling 30 percent is used in our labs, while the remaining 10 percent or so is the steam that heats and cools campus facilities. The effort to reduce water in those sectors is largely invisible, though. Reduced irrigation of the lawns is striking to anyone walking through.

Many of the most famous UC Berkeley lawns are still watered twice a week, a practice allowed in the regulations set by our water provider, the East Bay Municipal Utility District. “We are a campus and a park,” Shaff said, “so there is a lot of thought that goes into maintaining that feel.”

Rachel Bubb, a senior conservation and resource studies major, believes this partial irrigation detracts from the statement the campus could be making: “(UC Berkeley) wants to project a certain image so that when people drive by, they see this beautiful green campus. It’s only when you go further in that you actually see what we’re doing to reduce water. I think they should put it out in front for the public to see to show that the UC system actually cares.”

As admirable as our partial reduction of water usage is, Bubb may have a point. While lawn irrigation may form a tiny portion of our overall consumption, allowing the campus to totally dry up would be an admirable — albeit controversial — gesture of solidarity with Californians truly suffering in the drought. But can we bear to allow the stately “University of California” sign to sit at West Crescent beside once-vibrant grass that is now all shriveled up? Or is our “campus park” and the classical ideal of a prestigious university with sweeping green lawns too dear to us?

Some students thought so. Campus senior Clay Carey said he “would support a measure to stop watering, (for example), the Glade if the university deemed it appropriate, but I would hope that would be a last resort, since Memorial Glade is an iconic part of our campus.”

Shaff confirmed that the campus has no immediate plans to allow the Glade, at least, to dry into a hay field, though lawn conversions in the central campus will continue based on available funding.

While we just might maintain a few lawns for our lounging pleasure, I mourn nonetheless the grass that the drought has already shown out and cherish that which remains. Grass, thank you for being the preferred concert venue of college kids with guitars and nice voices and free time. Thank you for the vague air of camaraderie you engender in the students who sprawl out on you, even as we lie apart; thank you for playing mattress during between-class naps. I have loved your cool, gentle prickle underneath my feet in the sunshine of late fall days; I’ll miss the earthy smell of you in the morning. Picnics, music, studying, romance — your domain is vast. Grass, the idea of you is somehow inextricable from that of youth. If you must go, go knowing this: You were loved, even if we never said it.