Thinking Outside the Bottle
A campus-wide focus on water may have compelled a few Oxy students to break the rules in a competition between residence halls. But it’s also provoked a serious conversation about Earth’s most precious resource
By Andy Faught | Photos by Kevin Burke
Most people know that water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Drinkable water, however, covers less than 1 percent—and many Americans have given little thought to where their next glass is coming from. “You turn on the faucet, and water comes out,” says Sanjeev Khagram, Occidental’s John Parke Young Chair in Global Political Economy. “It’s not very sexy.”
But as the global population continues to boom, he adds, the issues surrounding water will ripple across the political landscape until they finally hit landfall in the United States. “Leaders are often crisis-driven. When you have major climatic events or drought, then you’ll start to see things happen.”
At Occidental, which used nearly 79.4 million gallons of water in 2012, a yearlong initiative is forcing students and faculty alike to consider the fate—and their role therein—of the planet’s most vital resource. The effort, which runs throughout the academic year, ties in to the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a seminal moment in the city’s growth and prosperity, as well as the United Nations’ International Year of Water Cooperation, an attempt to raise awareness of the challenges facing water management globally.
“Water is at the edge of a crisis in a lot of places,” says author Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (2012) and this year’s Convocation speaker at Oxy. “The power of having taken water for granted is not captured by the phrase ‘We take water for granted.’ If you don’t pay attention to something that’s essential, it will inevitably bite you on the butt. And that is what we have done.”
While Oxy long has promoted environmental sustainability, the water initiative marks the first time the College has attached a campus-wide theme to an academic year. “The future of water—and the future of anything, really—demands multiple perspectives,” says John Swift, professor of English and comparative literary studies and director of the Core general studies program. “We’re trying to bring interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on important issues, and I think it’s the best way to think of anything of importance. It has seemed to work the way we wanted it to by producing these many different kinds of conversations.”
In conjunction with the Cultural Studies Program, a writing program that is part of the Core curriculum for freshmen, the College hosted three lecturers during the fall semester. William Deverell, a historian of the 19th- and 20th-century American West, considered the landscape in and around the Los Angeles River and the cultural and social issues that fostered change around the river and its bed.
Students also heard from poet and critic Lewis MacAdams, founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, who is seeking to create a river conservancy to oversee restoration of the waterway; and Sandra Postel, director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project, who is working to develop more sustainable ways of using and managing fresh water. For the spring semester, the conversation shifts from local water concerns to global issues, where water scarcity and cleanliness, often more than conservation, drive policy discussions.
The curricular initiative has had repercussions outside the classroom. Grace Bender, a junior biology major from East Greenwich, R.I., and Lila Singer-Berk, a senior urban and environmental policy major from Canton, Mass., organized a two-week power conservation challenge among all residence halls in October. Stewart-Cleland and Chilcott took first and second place, respectively, while overall student water use dropped by an average of 0.87 gallons a day from the same time last year, from 26.47 gallons to 25.6 gallons.
Bender and Singer-Berk also tracked the use of electricity, which is inextricably tied to water production. (In his book, which was required reading for all first-years, Fishman writes that it takes 250 gallons of water to create the daily home power needs of the average American.) During the challenge, students used 3.2 kilowatt hours per day per residence hall, down 0.5 kilowatt hours from a year ago.
While the event was marred by incidents of cheating among some hall residents—some students did laundry in other halls, or left showers or faucets running—“Even the cheating means that people were thinking about conservation and were excited about making a challenge,” says Bender. “We hope to create habits that transcend students’ time at Oxy.” Adds Singer-Berk: “Especially living in Los Angeles, it’s absolutely essential that people start to recognize that water should be used with conservation in mind.”
Earlier this year, Bender and Singer-Berk successfully lobbied College administrators to hire a campus sustainability coordinator after learning that 13 of 16 peer institutions have such a position. Emma Sorrell ’13, who graduated with a degree in urban and environmental policy last May, is working on water-use strategies across campus, including landscape irrigation which, at some 15 million gallons annually, represents the single largest use of water at Oxy.
Sorrell also is co-chair of the newly reinstated Campus Sustainability Committee, which includes students, faculty, and staff. The group is considering recommending a variety of water-saving measures, including replacing or retrofitting up to 300 toilets and faucets with low-flow alternatives and faucet aerators. Those changes could reduce consumption by 2 million gallons a year, Sorrell says. The committee also is exploring whether artificial turf could be installed on Oxy’s soccer and baseball fields. But challenges abound.
“Funding is, of course, an issue,” says Sorrell, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and enrolled at the College in large part because of the work being done by Occidental’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. “These projects do have the potential to save significant money in the long run, but they still require an upfront investment.”
There are infrastructure challenges as well. “With these toilets that we want to switch out, we have to consider that we have an aging campus and some of our plumbing is old,” Sorrell says. “What’s going to happen if we put in a toilet that’s using less water? Are the older pipes going to hold up? Are they going to get clogged because there’s less water pushing things through the system? There are a lot of moving pieces that you have to consider. Everything could be perfect except for one little piece that makes it too costly or not possible.”
A separate project under consideration could involve reusing 1 million gallons of water used in the Campus Chiller Plant. That total represents a quarter of all the water used for air conditioning at Oxy.
There has been notable campus enthusiasm during the water initiative, Sorrell adds: “We have fantastic support. Students, faculty, and a lot of the staff are very excited about these changes.”
Water has played a pivotal role in the development of Los Angeles. When the L.A. Aqueduct opened in 1913, it was an unprecedented engineering feat that transported water 233 miles from the Owens Valley—east of the Sierra Nevada—to the San Fernando Valley. As the city’s population exploded, Eagle Rock would see its own history transformed by the eddies of water politics. Incorporated as a city in 1911, Eagle Rock was annexed by Los Angeles in 1923, a development linked in part to its need for water and the ready availability of aqueduct supplies. (Sparkletts Drinking Water Corp. was founded in 1925 on York Boulevard, atop three wells that provided plentiful water.)
Oxy itself rests on a vast aquifer with ample near-surface groundwater, unusable because it is fouled by pollutants, according to Eagle Rock Historical Society president Eric Warren ’69. That same groundwater has played havoc with construction on campus. In 1912, work on Johnson Hall had to be halted until officials could control an underground stream at the site. Half a century later, the College would experience similar challenges with the building of Norris Hall of Science and the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center.
These days it’s Oxy students who have water on their minds. Sustainable Oxy: Campus Greening—taught by Robert Gottlieb, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies (who has published extensively on water, dating back to 1989’s A Life of Its Own: The Politics and Power of Water)—challenges participants to develop recommendations concerning environmental issues on campus, from energy and water use to landscape and grounds maintenance.
UEP students also are seeking ways to identify how the College can play a role in increasing the environmental sustainability of the neighboring community, such as ensuring that schools, parks, and public areas have access to clean drinking water. The initiative “has been an important experiment with a lot of success in terms of interest,” says Gottlieb, who served for seven years as a director of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “The next step is to think through how it could more systematically develop.”
This year also marks the inception of the College’s Global Water Task Force through the diplomacy and world affairs department. A 12-student group is working with clients in the U.N. Development Program, researching water infrastructure and sanitation in countries in West and Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. The students ultimately will make recommendations to the body.
Lack of water for sanitation has exposed 2 billion people worldwide to health risks, says task force creator and Oxy professor Khagram, adding that water challenges common to the developing world could easily surface in the United States. “Here in Southern California, access to water is a real problem,” he says. “And you look at the quality of water across different parts of the country, the state, and Los Angeles, there’s a real range, so that’s a major issue as well.”
Khagram co-teaches the class with adjunct instructor Sherry Simpson Dean, an executive strategist with Opportunity Green, a Los Angeles-based organization that promotes corporate sustainability. Dean, who for two years worked with the U.N. Association—dedicated to enhancing U.S. participation in the work of the global body—used her connections to organize a student teleconference with a California businessman digging wells in rural Cambodia.
“We’ve attempted to use our networks, both at the U.N. and globally, to introduce students to a problem and then to invite them in to analyze what’s going on, and suggest solutions,” Dean says. “Just because it’s the United Nations doesn’t mean it has access to all of the answers. Students really have to probe deeply to get a full picture of not only the problem, but also the potential for solutions.”
Water gets the literary treatment in a first-year seminar taught by Swift. Desert or Garden starts by considering human expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Do we live in a fruitful, fertile place, or do we live in a wasteland?” Swift asks. “The students have been able to apply that to their historical thinking about places like Los Angeles, which has been called both. I’ve been incredibly impressed with their ability to assimilate wholly new materials and talk about them with some sophistication, using the terms that they’ve developed by thinking about water in this particularly literary and historical way.”
Assistant professor of chemistry Andrew Udit’s students considered water from yet another perspective. On December 2, they gave a presentation in the Quad to educate the Oxy community on water security. In showcasing four water purification methods—distillation, chemical and physical purification, and a personal water filter—students emphasized the pluses and minuses of each. “There are tons of ways to purify water, but they’re not all being utilized,” says Trevor Nash, a freshman from South Pasadena in Udit’s Science and You seminar. “People are not aware of purification.”
Udit calls the outreach a success, both in informing passers-by and giving his students a “hands-on” approach to a problem—unsafe drinking water—that is rife around the world. “The best thing that happens in the seminar is when students leave more confused than when they walked in, which means there are things they had not considered before to the depth that they needed to in order to make informed opinions.”
During his visit to the College for Convocation, author Fishman was particularly impressed with freshmen enrolled in the California Environment Semester, a course that explores natural science, economics, and the environment of California. “Here was a room full of kids who didn’t know each other, and it was the first day of college for them,” he says. “Each person talked about something that struck them from the book, and their questions were just spectacular.”
Fishman shared some sobering statistics. In the United States, poorly maintained water mains leak away a whole day’s drinking water for every seven days of water they provide—at a time when “moderate to exceptional” drought exists in more than 34 percent of the contiguous United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures. “We’re getting the water, storing it, cleaning it, pumping it, and letting it dribble away,” he says. “Imagine if Apple threw away one out of every seven iPhones.”
Fishman calls 1910-2010 the golden age of water, when it was clean, affordable, and available. But climate change is shifting where water is located, while mankind is continuing to build in water-challenged locales. It’s a recipe that will trigger what he calls the “revenge of water.”
“In the next five, 10, or 20 years, lots of people are going to say, ‘Whoa, what’s happened? Where did the water go?’” Fishman cautions. “Eventually, our ignorance, our water illiteracy, will hurt us.”
Freelance writer Andy Faught of Fresno wrote “From Here to Infinity” in the Fall 2013 issue.
How much water does it take to sustain Oxy’s soccer field each year? If you guessed nearly 4.32 million gallons, you’d be right on the money. That’s more than five times the amount needed to irrigate Patterson Field, which installed an artificial turf back in 2005, and more than 14 times the water used by Taylor Pool annually, according to 2012 figures provided by sustainability coordinator Emma Sorrell ’13.
In an ongoing effort to go green, a water refill fountain in Rush Gymnasium, left, has saved an estimated 35,000-plus plastic bottles since its installation during the 2011-12 academic year. Furthermore, a major effort is underway to advance water sustainability at the College, while a number of water-related courses are sprinkled through both the first-year experience and the upper-division curriculum. Scheduled speakers for the spring semester—when the conversation shifts to global issues of water scarcity and cleanliness—include Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, and Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, an independent policy research group in India.
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