Swimming Pools, Sprinklers, and Swales: What Happens to Our Water?

“The campus is bordered on the west by Crystal Springs Lake and on the north by a ravine, thru which run clear waters from the melting snow of Mt. Hood. The Lake is fed by many springs which supply daily seven million gallons of waters […] It is in every respect the ideal location for a college.” This passage was penned in the first Reed College Record under the section, “Selection of Site.” Reed was founded with water in mind. But in mind for what? What does Reed do with its water? The springs have always attempted to keep the marsh grass soggy and feed a lake hosting the eternal rivalry between ducks and geese, but for the humans on campus, the answer has changed many times. Turn back the clock 24 years and your attention downstream: what is now a fish ladder was once a swimming pool. Or look back at old photos of Canyon Day: grainy students build dams and clear a space for well-manicured gardens. Since then, things have changed. The Canyon undergoes daily restoration, and fish no longer contend with swimming pools. 

Photo Courtesy of Reed College Archives

To get a better picture of your relationship with Reed Lake, go outside and find your favorite shrub or patch of the lawn. Chances are that it’s been watered by Reed Lake and the surrounding drainage basin. Lawns may raise alarm bells for some of you. With droughts dropping water tables 100’s of feet across the United States and one-third of the average household’s potable water going into outdoor maintenance, the country’s lawn craze is putting a dire strain on our water resources. Walking by Reed’s bright green grass during drought months, it is reasonable to wonder how the lawns could be maintained without drinking up more than their share.

According to Zac Perry, Reed’s Grounds Manager, grounds maintenance attempts to meet this challenge in several ways. Firstly, the water used for the lawns is non-potable, which means people’s access to drinking water is not affected. Secondly, the lake acts as a retention pond, supplementing the water from the springs with stormwater. Using a system of stormwater swales, it is estimated that only 1% of the water that falls on our campus as rain leaves via urban wastewater pipes. Thirdly, the water levels are monitored using a staff gauge (essentially a ruler), rainfall statistics, and the eyes and ears of the grounds crew. Water use is currently measured through theoretical output. This system does not, however, account for leaks, broken sprinkler heads, or sudden changes in weather. In the next couple years, grounds maintenance expects to have a new irrigation system that will alert them of breakages, adjust for weather, and allow for an accurate calculation of water use. This data on the horizon will let us know if we are overtaxing our drainage basin.

The shrubs and lawns have the potential to affect the waterways beyond water usage. Eutrophication occurs when too much of a limiting nutrient like phosphorus gets into the water. This causes an algal bloom. When the algae die, they use up oxygen and create dead zones which kill off aquatic organisms. Eutrophication is a common byproduct of fertilizer runoff. The high-use areas of Reed grounds are fertilized, but the mix is organic, slow-release, and phosphorous-free. Pesticides are another common source of water contamination. According to Zac, pesticides are used “sparingly and only as a last resort when other resources to control unwanted plants have been exhausted.” 

More broadly, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the equipment used to mow lawns in the United States uses “800 million gallons of gasoline and spills a further 17 million.” In the global long term, these practices will affect all ecosystems—not just the waterways. In the local short-term, spillages may find their way into the drainage basin. Reed has taken steps to curb traditional fuel use. Just about all of Reed’s tractors and mowers run on 99% biodiesel. 

Underlying all of this is the fact that our campus is part of a broader community. With the proper management, Reed can cut back on fertilizers and reduce water waste, but we are not an isolated system. We are the fingernail of the finger that is Crystal Springs, on the hand that is Johnson Creek, connected to a body of rivers, and rainfall, and eastern mountains, and on and on. If our goal is to preserve our water, we must do our part to steward a healthy ecosystem as far as our personal resources can take us, but once we reach our borders of influence we must count on our neighbors.

The global picture aside, there are a handful of ways the campus could be shaped. The current path could be followed. This likely means a continuation of lawns. Fertilizers and pesticides would be improved. We may find ways to reduce carbon emissions, and our water management would become more exact. This path is well supported by those that influence the long-term decision making within our school politics. It keeps a marketable college aesthetic and provides a place for events and recreation. 

Reed does not use a monoculture seed mix, and a variety of other plants live in the lawns. However, restoring the grassy patches to a landscape akin to the Reed Canyon would further increase biodiversity. This path would also use less water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel in the long term. However, this option wouldn’t come to fruition for years. According to Zac, it would take many boots on the ground and demand a larger budget than is currently available for grounds maintenance. For another perspective, see Mud Bentley’s article on the dream of a campus-wide patchwork garden: https://reedquest.org/articles/reedlawns. Of course, a mix of methods could be employed; The ancillary patches of grass could be converted into gardens. Other patches could be incorporated into the Reed Canyon, keeping swaths of the Great Lawn for frisbee and soccer. 

What can you do? 

Until the new sprinkler system is installed, unknown quantities of water will go to waste due to broken irrigation. If you see a leaking sprinkler, contact facilities at 503-777-7283 or facilities-services@reed.edu. Look into Greenboard, a student environmental sustainability club. Come to Canyon Day on 2 April. Restoring and sustaining our ecosystems require volunteers, so if you would like to demonstrate an interest in volunteering in the Canyon fill out this survey: https://tinyurl.com/canyonreed

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Stories


We would love your thoughts, please comment!x
%d bloggers like this: