Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Go green, UA, and let grass die

My Tucson



Campus is a little quieter nowadays. Fountains and water features that normally bubble and splash in corners have been shut down.

Flowers are another victim of budget cuts, wilting in their beds with no prospect of replacement. And the long stretch of grass in front of Old Main, already trampled brown, won’t get its annual reseeding.

I’m rejoicing in the change. Water conservation may turn out to be a rare silver lining in the economic storm clouds.

Even as departments disappear and class sizes swell, we have an opportunity to take at least one good thing from this economic crisis.

Fountains hold an odd place in the psychology of Westerners. Just take a look at the marvel of engineering and denial that pumps water into Las Vegas’ spouts and geysers. Water features glamorize government buildings in Phoenix and create inviting entryways into new developments on the north side of Tucson.

If you grew up in a rainy place, it might be hard to understand how fountains symbolize wealth and power. Out here, where water is scarce, only the wealthy can afford such extravagant waste.

Flowered landscaping on campus, supposedly, is a good recruitment tool. No fewer than 13 fountains blithely promise prospective students that living way out West isn’t really much different from living anywhere else.

Sure, the summer weather is scorching, but you can hardly tell from those glossy brochures. That we live in one of America’s driest and most fragile ecosystems is literally washed away.

At the same time, the University of Arizona promotes itself as a top school for water research. The messages are conflicting. We’ve got programs and professors that far outshine anything you find on the East Coast. So why should we look like an East Coast campus?

Locals and tourists alike know the delicate beauty of a western sky lighting a saguaro’s thorns. And the burst of green after a monsoon is all the more precious because it happens so infrequently.

Instead of proudly displaying Arizona’s plant life, the university corrals most of its cactuses into a single “cactus garden,” mixing natives with exotic oddities.

In reality, we humans are the oddity. Unlike cactus, we’ve yet to learn how to live with scarcity.

Why not let yucca and agave flourish in those too-expensive flower plots? Or, if greenness is required, let agriculture students fill those corners with native beans and squash, which reward the gift of water with food as well as blossoms.

Our talented art department, I’m sure, can design features to replace fountains that are equally beautiful and much less wasteful. And students from our excellent water harvesting class can reshape the grounds to capture the occasional rains, which provide more than enough water to keep a barrel cactus fat and blooming.

The university doesn’t just gain a small savings in water use. It also promotes its image as a school that celebrates Arizona’s unique landscape and actively seeks to protect it.

Sustainability is often derided as a hobby for the elite. But the truth is, we all become conservationists when our wallets get thin. If it’s not OK to throw away money and water during bad times, then why do we celebrate waste when the economy is booming?

When the recession is over, we can choose to march forward with nothing but bad memories. Or we can take with us the ability to make thoughtful choices about the future – ones that will preserve both money and the environment for the next generation of Tucsonans.

It’s time to recognize that we live in a dry place, and that it’s beautiful.

Melissa Lamberton is a University of Arizona student, a poet and a Tucson native. E-mail: mllamb@email.arizona.edu

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