With students taking the lead in research and planning, Southern Oregon University is starting a project to replace lawns with drought-tolerant and native plants that require 50 to 75 percent less water.

With students taking the lead in research and planning, Southern Oregon University is starting a project to replace lawns with drought-tolerant and native plants that require 50 to 75 percent less water.

"Way too much water is being applied and there's excessive runoff," said SOU's new landscape supervisor, Kathi Sheehan. "We have to be cognizant of native soil and plants in this semi-arid region."

The plan, a capstone project of five seniors in Environmental Studies, was presented to the SOU Sustainability Council a few weeks ago. The council's chairman, Jon Eldridge, vice president for student affairs, said the strategy will go forward.

"It's great when students take the lead in research to make changes on campus that make for a smaller environmental footprint," Eldridge said.

SOU already has some xeriscaping (areas that use very little water) by Hannon Library, Central Hall and the Science Building, but the ongoing student project will plant in front of Cascade Hall, with hopes of steadily expanding as new generations of students take it on, said professor Eric Dittmer of Environmental Sciences.

SOU sits on a slope and releases much runoff water that contains chemicals, which ends up in North Mountain Park and Bear Creek, where it exacerbates water-temperature problems in the stream, said Dittmer.

Xeriscaping and reduced watering results in less-compacted soil, less runoff, and more water percolating through the ground to Bear Creek, said Environmental Studies senior Braxton Reed, demonstrating the proposed xeriscaping plot by Cascade Hall. The area is too steep for easy mowing or relaxation.

Eldridge said the heavily watered campus is not using, wasting or spending a lot of money on city water, because it gets almost all of its water from Talent Irrigation Ditch.

"It's there for us, whether we use it or not," he added, but "our grounds folks are eager to work with students to xeriscape and reduce our consumption."

Sheehan, who has degrees in environmental landscaping, said she's launching a project to measure and more appropriately meter water use based on humidity and temperature, and to augment grass with xeriscaping that is sensitive to the environment.

The expanses of SOU's lawn serve a positive function, she noted, because it keeps down dust, cools the campus and allows evapotranspiration through plants into the clouds.

The landscapers will install native plants and some from the Mediterranean region, which is much like the Rogue Valley, said Reed. Interpretive signs will be placed to educate students and encourage student work in real-world projects.

When the current project is finished, Reed said he's got another one in mind. SOU has a lot of groundwater and streams that got buried during campus building years, and he'd like to see those brought back to daylight and used.

Dittmer said a big, grassy quad is a positive recruitment tool for new students, but he'd like to see it eventually filled with a solar array that tracks the sun all day.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.