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Green lawns, dry wells: California’s drought is an issue of equality


While Stanford flaunts its lush lawns and recently restored fountains, nearby communities suffer from dried up wells and arsenic-tainted groundwater. We cannot afford to forget about California’s ongoing drought or to dismiss it as a slight annoyance. In this time of severe and prolonged drought — California’s worst in 1200 years — it is the responsibility of privileged communities, like Stanford, to educate themselves and take action on this issue.

It is critical to recognize that the drought is not just a climate event — it is also inextricably linked to the conversations about racial and economic inequality so prevalent on campus. The California drought disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. In the San Joaquin Valley, one of the areas most impacted by the drought, 65 percent of residents are people of color and 64 percent are low income. They are exposed to some of the highest levels of arsenic, nitrates, and radionuclide water contamination in California. These communities now rely on bottled water for consumption, and must haul their water for cleaning from communal water tanks. In the words of the California Law Review, the drought’s challenges “lie at the intersection of environmental health, racial discrimination, and poverty.” The disproportionate lack of reliable water sources in poor areas is a consequence of long-standing neglect and structural discrimination against these communities that were never afforded the proper resources and infrastructure to create sustainable living conditions.

In extreme cases, governments even purposefully diverted resources from these communities, hoping that they would dwindle out. A 1971 Tulare County general plan reads:

“Public commitments to communities with little or no authentic future should be carefully examined before final action is initiated. These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities.” However, 13 of these “non-viable” communities still remain, and the lack of investment in major public facilities means that they now face dry wells and contaminated groundwater.  

The water crisis in the Central Valley follows a common pattern — climate events such as the current drought exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities. While poor communities struggle to get sufficient water to live, wealthier urban and suburban communities use significantly more water. For example, while Palo Alto and Stanford use about 117 and 107 gallons per person per day, respectively, East Palo Alto uses just 55.6 gallons per person per day — less than half as much. As a community that can spare a third of its water usage on landscaping, we at Stanford ought to do our best to reduce resource inequality.  

Targeting landscaping as a means to reduce water usage would make both an effective and visible statement of our commitment to promoting equality of resource access. In an inner-coastal area such as Stanford, replacing one square foot of lawn with drought tolerant plants can save 39 gallons per square foot per year. With the Stanford main campus’s 1.2 million square feet of lawn, this would be the equivalent of 93 Olympic-sized swimming pools saved annually. In addition to simply saving water, it’s important that our surroundings and the campus that we interact with on a daily basis reflect our values. More drought-tolerant landscaping and fewer water-intensive lawns would be a reminder that we should not insulate ourselves from the drought.

Students for a Sustainable Stanford, in partnership with R&DE, is currently working to replace under-utilized lawns with drought tolerant landscaping. These areas offer little in the way of recreational space or other tangible benefits, but do guzzle water. Lawn replacement represents a promising step forward decreasing frivolous water usage and increasing student and community engagement with and awareness of environmental issues. Nevertheless, our community needs to take further steps to address this critical human and environmental issue.


– Tanvi Gambhir ‘18, Stanley Gu ‘19, Erin Pang ‘18, Erik Rosenberg ‘18

Members of Students for a Sustainable Stanford

For more information, or to get involved, please visit and
Contact SSS at erinp5 ‘at’