Dec. 5, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 3

Changing Landscape

Campus scenery evolves to meet new needs

Staying true to the University’s commitment to sustainability, water conservation remains a top priority while maintaining the lush campus vegetation.

It might be hard to believe, given all the rain of late, but California State University, Chico’s verdant, 119-acre campus took a beating during the prolonged drought.

Wilting flowers, dead grass, ground cover strangled by weeds, and messy “cattle paths” marking pedestrian shortcuts were just some of the fallout.

At that time, the campus sure was “looking in a bad state,” said Kevin Doyle, director of Facilities Management and Services (FMS), which oversees grounds maintenance. “We promised the campus to achieve our water savings (and) come back with new, improved, water-efficient landscape projects and accomplish them as we could with funding and time.”

In recent months, a collection of innovative, water-wise efforts has been launched to ensure the campus maintains its distinctive, leafy grandeur while staying true to the University’s commitment to sustainability.

The landscape redesign started in earnest last summer, following government-mandated water reductions that led officials to turn off the tap to acres of plant life. Shutting down spigots left much of the landscape ailing, particularly the expansive lawns and tender roses and azaleas—all big-time water guzzlers.

Then came Michael Alonzo (BS, Agriculture, ’08), supervisor of grounds and landscape services, with new ideas. Before joining the University as an employee in 2012, the Sonora native had pursued golf course management, which also involves keeping plant-filled, open spaces healthy and attractive.

Now, Alonzo is driving CSU, Chico’s landscape transformation, a multi-month mission supported by University leadership and made possible by the landscaping crew, masons and other FMS professionals.

“We just couldn’t let the campus look dead,” Alonzo said. “I want to help update the face of campus. It’s a beautiful campus and it has so much potential.”

The resulting changes include replacing dead grass with more native vegetation, creative improvements to irrigation, and visual cues to redirect unrelenting foot traffic. Embracing bioswales is keeping flooding at bay while replenishing water in the underground aquifer.

Alan Peck, a grounds and landscaping crew member, works to improve the landscaping area near Yolo Hall.

Alan Peck, a grounds and landscaping crew member, works to improve the landscaping area near Yolo Hall.

Bioswale is a term for a curving trench with gently sloping sides lined with vegetation. Typically dug in areas prone to flooding, bioswales—which are similar to retention ponds—are frequently installed where puddles form to capture rainwater and runoff.

They made their debut at Chico State in 2008, in front of the Student Services Center, but in recent years had begun to look unkempt due to the drought and lack of funding for upgrades—which was not ideal for a campus entry point.

Rain runoff is directed to the bioswale from the Student Services Center (SSC) roof, the Meriam Library south plaza, and courtyard between the buildings. The feature holds the water for several hours until it percolates through the soil into a storm drain or can be stored in a cistern for future use. Vegetation and rocks help filter out silt, pollutants, and other debris.

After the bioswale removes some impurities, some of the water that filtered through the soil is directed through pipes to a 12,000-gallon covered tank. When near capacity, an automatic switch triggers a pump to drain some of the water back into the dry bioswale, where it can percolate back into the water table.

The SSC bioswale also has a water-wise, underground sprinkler system that puts water only where it’s needed—near the native plants’ roots. And it’s home to 11 types of drought-tolerant plants, including small clumps of California meadow sedge, spikey deer grass, and young fern leaf yarrow plants that will be tipped with yellow flowers by spring.

Over time, those grasses will grow and spread, Alonzo said, so “this will become kind of a meadow.”

A collection of stones and volcanic rock add to the tranquil look of a natural streambed. Some stones are small enough to fit in a child’s palm, while some of are nearly as big as park benches. The large volcanic boulders came from a Chico construction site near Highway 32, just east of Bruce Road.

“Without really knowing exactly what to do with them, our masons took one look and said, ‘this would make a great seatwall,’” Alonzo recalled.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White commended the efforts of Chico State’s grounds and landscaping crew during his campus visit on May 4.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White commended the efforts of Chico State’s grounds and landscaping crew during his campus visit on May 4.

“They just add this aspect to the landscape that makes you feel that it’s been here forever,” said Alonzo. “We are trying to draw from Zen gardening and rock gardening, where you don’t have to fill every single space with a plant, and you don’t even have to use plants.”

Hunks of the volcanic rock have also been “planted” at another small landscaping project in front of the West First Street entry of Ayers Hall, Alonzo said. Weeping blue atlas cedars and Japanese maples are scattered among the stones.

The SSC bioswale was such a success, another was added at Yolo Hall this fall. There, FMS installed the campus’ first super-efficient, sub-surface irrigation system that uses less water to maintain a downsized lawn. In December, several picnic tables will be installed to give people a comfortable spot to enjoy the green lawn or the bioswale and native plant collection.

The west entry to Kendall Hall, near Trinity Hall, also got a sustainability refresh this summer.

While the expansive front lawn and towering pines remain, University Head Groundworker Alan Peck overhauled pedestrian shortcuts to the Bell Memorial Union. Out went the ground cover plants and in came asparagus ferns, Japanese maples, and a bed of mulch edged with rocks, as well as a soft carpet of slender needles from the giant Japanese black pine trees overhead.

“We’re trying to add some subtle visual cues instead of harsh barriers,” said Alonzo. “Usually, people are just flying to class, faces buried in their phones, and they don’t see what’s going on. This is just one small area where they’ll have to slow down and make a decision to go around and not cut through. We’ve gotten so many compliments on this one area.”

DingXin Cheng, Civil Engineering, was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair.


Civil engineering professor DingXin Cheng was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair. Read more.

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Ending the Gender Pay Gap

Chico State students aim to improve wage equality for all. Read more.