What's the Cost of Winning 4th?

By Carolyn Angius '13Staff Writer

It’s hard to go much of anywhere around the Scripps campus or website this year without being reminded of our campus’s high ranking on the Forbes’ World’s Most Beautiful Campuses list.  I don’t necessarily disagree with this ranking, and I understand the pivotal role Scripps’ beauty plays in attracting many a prospective student, myself included, but it’s impossible to ignore the ominous irony of our lush home.  While beautiful it may be, it is far from environmentally or financially sustainable.

Claremont, California is a desert in disguise--receiving only 16.96 inches of rain a year, our city is drier than 41 of our nation’s states and receives less rain than over 80% of the country.  If not from the sky, then, where does Scripps find the water to sustain its apparently world-renowned beauty?

I began looking into the means behind our campus’ lawns in order to answer two main questions.  First and foremost, I wanted to trace our lawns back to their source and discover where our sprinkler water was actually coming from.  It turns out 40% of our water is imported from Northern California, while 60% is from local wells.  Secondly, I wanted to ensure the sky-high tuition so many students are required to produce isn’t directed towards what seems to be excessive and environmentally irresponsible watering.  What I discovered, however, surprised me.

Many buildings and gardens on the Scripps campus were included in National Register of Historic Places in 1984, making them subject to the rules and regulations of the National Historic Preservation Act.  While this is an honorable distinction that recognizes the role of the school and founder in history, it may also be hindering our campus’ ability to evolve and adapt.  When I spoke with an employee in the Grounds office, they told me that the federal government compensates Scripps for the water necessary to maintain the landscaping it has deemed historically important.  This money comes with a catch, though.  According to Section 106 of the Act, any changes made to the historically important areas of campus must be approved in consultation with a representative from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  “The goal of consultation is to identify historic properties potentially affected by the undertaking, assess its effects and seek ways to avoid...any adverse effects on historic properties,” reads Section 106.  The ambiguous wording of this Act leaves unclear what constitutes an adverse effect, and the government may prioritize its definition of “adverse” over Scripps’ definition.

The constraints of the Preservation Act may be limiting the ways in which Scripps can tone down its water use. Scripps needs to transform some of the little-used grass patches into lower-impact native landscaping.  I recognize the importance of grass expanses like the Jacqua Quadrangle and Bowling Green in campus life, but what about the grass lining the walkway between GJW and Kimberly? Or between the Humanities Auditorium and Wilbur?  These grassy areas do little to enhance campus beauty, yet require water and care just like our more central grass installations.  I know I am far from alone in my desire for more water-responsible landscaping.  While I admit I may not fully understand the limitations of the Preservation Act, I have a hunch that not being accountable for its own water bills and being confined to the limits of Section 106 alleviates Scripps from its environmental responsibility to implement more sensible landscaping.