The seven hundred and sixty-nine acres that span the University of New Mexico campus are predominantly covered in grass — an odd sight, given the college’s high desert locale. Water, a precious commodity that is increasingly lacking in supply and high in demand, flows freely on UNM’s grounds — and according to the administration, isn’t a cost that is easily tabulated.
Norma Allen, the director of the University’s budget operations, said that UNM’s Facilities Management department receives a $1.9 million budget for the grounds.
Facilities Management said that its system isn’t currently set up to monitor the water usage on campus, and because of this isn’t able to peg down the exact cost.
“We give them two big pots of money: The utilities and their operations,” Allen said.
Allen said the budget for UNM’s grounds includes other landscaping measures in addition to grass upkeep. In the Southwest, outdoor water usage can account for 60% of all water usage, according to the EPA. In addition, “50% of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems.”
Recently, the UNM Board of Regents approved tuition hikes for students. However, Al Sena, director of Facilities Management, said, “the Facilities Management grounds and landscaping budget is not funded with tuition dollars. Maintenance for campus buildings and grounds is funded through direct allocation from the State of New Mexico.”
According to Allen, UNM had the budget set prior to June, which was when the state Senate met in a special session and lowered the funding to higher education. The special session is what instigated the tuition hikes.
Rich Schorr, Facilities Management manager of grounds and landscaping, contended grass landscaping in an urban, high desert setting wasn’t necessarily an intrinsic negative.
“Areas of grass reduce the negative effects associated with urban heat islands,” Schorr said. “The use of turf decreases the ambient temperature on campus, not only making it more comfortable for campus users but it can provide energy savings in adjacent buildings and reduce storm runoff and erosion. Because our grass contains a mix of clover — which is a pollinator — it also contributes to the environmental ecosystem of campus.”
When questioned about what measures are being taken to make sure water isn’t being wasted on campus, Schorr said UNM understands the issue but is still in the process of developing steps to create a system that will allow for a more regulated irrigation system, and are currently using staggered times for watering the grounds.
Jessica Rowland, a lecturer in UNM’s sustainability studies program, said that grass and lawns compared to just having bare dirt on campus do provide benefits.
“I don’t want to make a broad statement that grass is bad,” Rowland said, while acknowledging that other landscaping options might be even more beneficial.
“I don’t think that necessarily, having a lush expansive lawn makes sense in the desert. We have a limited resource (water) available,” Rowland said.
Rowland said that a good example of more sustainable landscaping is the area outside of the College of Education, which has very little grass in the surrounding landscaping and instead utilizes rocks, trees and other shrubberies.
This type of landscaping is called “xeric”, which researchers from Colorado State University describe as “landscaping with water conservation as a major objective.” This can include landscapes which implement more trees or alternative ground coverings.
Rowland said that for the future, UNM could also consider planting more native plants or more trees that produce fruit. These are beneficial for both the local ecosystem and pollinators, Rowland said.
When asking Facilities Management about any possible plans to implement more xeric landscaping, Sena said there were no current plans and couldn’t predict what the cost might look like.
In Georges Teyssot’s “The American Lawn,” Teyssot describes how lawns have been a key aspect of the university cultural landscape in the United States.
This dates as far back as 1819 with the University of Virginia, whose design derived from Oxford, Cambridge and other European campuses.
“Designing the campus as a series of small separate lodges arranged ‘around an open square of grass and trees would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village,’” Teyssot wrote.
Teyssot also mentions how lawns, throughout their history, have been a place of community, and even when they are on private land they are seen as a somewhat public gathering place.
On the other hand, the University has an opportunity to be a leader in sustainability efforts, according to Rowland.
“We could be sort of a space in the middle of the city that was working to do things more environmentally friendly,” Rowland said.
Madeline Pukite is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @madelinepukite