When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last September, it forced Americans to reevaluate their values and acknowledge the inequities that exist in our country. But for campus facilities director Paul Richards, Katrina has provided him with the opportunity to question how prepared Mills is for a water disaster of its own.
Lake Aliso, located behind Founders Commons, and Lion Creek, which runs through the center of campus, are endangered by what Richards describes as "urban creek problems." Since the 1960s when Interstate 580 was built, the creek that feeds Lake Aliso and Lion Creek was redirected through a culvert under the freeway which causes the water to run much faster than it naturally would. In addition, it disrupts the natural creek flow and is causing the lake to silt in or fill with dirt and other debris at a rate of seven feet per year.
"We have big imbalances of the natural kind," says Richards.
As a result, Lake Aliso is one-fifth its historical size and is continually shrinking, which is not only a problem from the aesthetic point of view. While many Mills students know about Lake Aliso from its historical reputation when students could use the lake for canoeing and other activities, many do not know of its practical use to the campus. About one million gallons of water a week are pumped from the lake and used to irrigate the rest of campus through a system of pipes under campus which is separate from the city system.
"It's a diminishing resource we have used for many years," Richards said.
In addition to the silting, the fast moving water caused by the culvert is endangering many structures and trees on campus. For example, Lucie Stern Bridge was lost four years ago, Lisser Bridge was lost last year and a large acacia tree was lost last month.
"In order to create a different sort of future, we need to make changes," Richards said. He continues to pursue these changes through a variety of channels. Presently he is planning on traveling to New Orleans to investigate the disaster planning of schools in the area by meeting with the facilities directors of Tulane University and other colleges.
Richards is also making moves to begin planning the restoration of Lake Aliso and Lion Creek. So far he has hired LTD Engineering, which did one mile of creek restoration in East Alameda County, to make a proposal. Richards is still fundraising to pay LTD for the proposal, which cost $105,000. After this proposal, he estimates the costs would be $1-2 million to respond to the recommendations.
Freshwoman Hannah Peragine is interested in the restoration of the lake. After talking to alumnae and reading the history of Mills, Peragine knows about the historical significance of Lake Aliso to the Mills campus.
"I think it is really important for them to focus on cleaning [the lake] because it would be sad to lose it. If we don't do something now, it is going to be too late," Peragine said.
To fundraise, Richards has given a slide show presentation of the lake to the class of 1955 which donated $25,000 and the Palo Alto Alumni club. The Alumnae Association also has a fund devoted to the restoration of Lake Aliso, according to Peragine.
Richards is also applying to the Getty Foundation for a Landscape Heritage Master Plan, which will help to identify the historical habitat of the campus. This plan can be used to develop plans to restore the habitat to its historical or natural existence.
"If there was a consistent interest [in the environment of Mills] from students it would make a bigger difference than anything I could think of," Richards said.
Events are held on campus for students to get involved in cleaning the creek by clearing debris, but this past fall when Creek-to-Bay day was held, no students attended. Richards is interested in beginning a dialogue on campus about the environmental issues that Mills faces.
Junior Gigi Robles is doing a project on Lion Creek for her Introduction to Environmental Science class, and plans on attending the Earth Day creek clean-up in April.
"I want to help clean because I want to see how a person can make a difference," said Robles.