Oakland Tech Students Plant Seeds of Water Conservation

High school juniors are transforming lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes — and pushing homeowners and the Oakland Unified School District to follow suit.

Under Governor Jerry Brown’s unprecedented mandate, cities across the state are now working to reduce water usage by 25 percent. And as part of this effort to combat one of the most severe droughts on record in California, the state is partnering with local governments to help replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Over the last month, a group of eleventh-grade students at Oakland Technical High School have worked to bring California one-step closer to that goal. As part of a humanities class civic engagement assignment — in which students were tasked with tackling broader societal problems with a projects outside of the classroom — two student groups developed detailed water conservation initiatives. One group in the class, taught by English and history teacher Nate Gong, designed and executed a plan to convert a student’s home lawn into a drought-tolerant yard. The students produced a video documenting the process and have encouraged other homeowners to follow suit.

A second group researched opportunities for Oakland Tech to conserve water on campus — by using an advanced water-saving technology on the school’s large front lawn that faces Broadway in the Temescal district. That group has proposed that the school use a powder that, when mixed with water, turns into a gel and absorbs and retains water — gradually releasing the moisture supply directly to the plants’ roots. It’s much more efficient than traditional watering and could allow the school to significantly cut back on its water use.

“Changing one lawn obviously is helping,” said student Antigone Michaels, who volunteered to have her group redesign her family’s lawn in the Trestle Glen neighborhood. “But we thought it would be a good idea for people in the neighborhood to see what we’re working on … and get an awareness that this is something you can change.” That’s why the students decided to make a video about the project and further promote the effort on Instagram at @puttingrootsintooakland, where they post other water conservation tips.

Michaels and six other juniors ripped out the grass, weeds, and other plants in her 300-square-foot lawn and worked with a local landscape architect to design a drought-tolerant replacement. The group selected native plants and succulents with the goal of rebuilding a yard that would require significantly less water, but would still be aesthetically pleasing.

“Just because you don’t have grass doesn’t mean the lawn can’t look nice,” said Michaels. “And it’s easy, inexpensive, and not too labor-intensive.” The entire project cost roughly $250 and is yielding water savings of roughly 300 gallons per week when compared with the amount of water needed to keep the grass green.

Meanwhile, the other group has been working to convince administrators to allow them to test out the gel product, WaterSilos, on school grass. “We figured that we could set an example for other schools in OUSD,” said junior Olivia West. “And because so many students and so many families are involved with Tech, we thought we could influence others to save water.”

West, however, said OUSD officials have not responded to repeated requests by her group for information on the watering practices at Tech; the students want to know how much water the school currently uses to keep the front lawn green. “It’s actually really been a struggle,” she said. Though the school year ends this week, the group of nine students plans to continue pursuing the project during their senior year, West said, noting that they intend to apply for funding through a national competition.

Although the group has been unable to precisely calculate potential water saving without data from the district, West said that, based on information from the WaterSilos manufacturer, the product could possibly lead to reductions of as much as 75 percent. She said it appears that Tech waters its lawns very regularly (they are often wet in the mornings and have remained a lush green during the drought), but with WaterSilos, it’s possible that the school would only need to water the site roughly twice a month. This could also translate to financial savings for the district.

Troy Flint, spokesperson for OUSD, told me in an email last week that the manager of the district’s landscaping department, James Thomas, intends to look into the concept: “He can’t commit to this project without a review, but he’ll give it every consideration and he’s eager to evaluate it.” Flint added: “Conservation is a focus for the District, especially given the current drought, so it’s exciting to see students demonstrating social and environmental consciousness and helping to lead this important work.”

Navigating the bureaucracy of the school district has been a useful part of the civic engagement lesson for students, said Gong, the teacher. This was the first year he assigned this kind of student-driven civic assignment, which counts as the final exam. “They considered problems that remain in America, in their city, or their school … and proposed real solutions that take you out of the classroom,” he said.

In addition to the water conservation groups, he said students have launched a range of projects, including an initiative to pressure Oakland Tech to switch to sweatshop-free apparel; a campaign to publicize free events and resources for Oakland youth; a project pushing for improved salaries for Oakland teachers; and a social media campaign raising awareness about racial discrimination.

The assignment is designed to help students create real-world, small-scale projects with attainable objectives, Gong said, noting of the residential lawn project: “It’s helping them connect the local with the global.”

Natasha Dean, a student in the residential lawn group, said that they had originally wanted to push local sports fields to adopt more sustainable watering practices, such as drip irrigation systems. “They’re very poorly irrigated and waste a lot of water,” she said. But the group eventually realized it would be too difficult to enact this kind of change: “We wanted to focus on something … where we could actually make an impact.”

Michaels added: “You can’t just tell other people to change. You need to show you can change, too.”

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