Students pitch in to boost campus sustainability

For some SF State students, an unseasonably warm and sunny day was the perfect time to roll up their sleeves, get in the dirt and do some digging and planting.

Eighteen students last month participated in SF State's monthly "Campus Work Party," which is part of SF State's ongoing effort to become a model campus for environmental sustainability. The students’ work on Feb. 23 helped to replace a conventional lawn area near the Science and Business buildings with "bioswales," landscaping features that help divert rainwater out of city storm drains and into the landscape.

Currently, rainwater on the roof falls through downspouts and flows into the drain to be processed alongside sewage at San Francisco's Oceanside Wastewater Treatment facility. That is a process SF State Sustainable Operations Coordinator Davin Wentworth-Thrasher says is unnecessary and actually can be harmful to the environment.

A photo of SF State freshman Monica Lewis planting.

SF State freshman Monica Lewis plants native grasses in a bioswale next to the Science Building at a Campus Work Party on Feb. 23, 2012.

"Because it's California rainwater falling from the roof, it's basically clean," he said. "We don't need to process it, we don't need to run it through the system to apply chemicals to treat it, so it becomes an effluent that's actually worse than the water that goes in."

A bioswale is a landscaped depression that slows the flow of water, allowing it to seep naturally into the ground instead of being diverted into a storm drain. Inside the bioswale are native plants that thrive on the seasonal inundation of water.

"We just redirect rainwater into the landscape," Wentworth-Thrasher said. "In doing so, we're recharging groundwater the natural way you're supposed to when rain falls, and we're creating a display of plants that can handle that extra water during the season -- an excellent display of biodiversity."

Students were happy to do their part. "I think it's good that we're moving toward utilizing the rainwater, using native plans, getting it back to a natural setting," said Leanne Feely, a senior who works in the Campus Grounds office. Senior Grame Jones learned about the work party through his "World of Plants" class. "It sounded like a really cool idea," Jones said. "I didn't want the water to run off and go to waste." Jones said he earned some class credit for attending the work party, but his primary motivation was to help the environment. Wentworth-Thrasher said a handful of students spontaneously offered to help out after walking by the work area and learning about the project.

San Francisco's Public Utility Commission has encouraged homeowners and large landscape users, such as SF State, to redirect rainwater that falls on their rooftops to keep the city's storm drain system from overflowing during heavy rainfall, Wentworth-Thrasher said. By creating the bioswales, the University is not only satisfying the commission's request, but also providing an example to others.

"We're doing our part to be an educational demonstration to the general public," he said. "We're showing how you can do this in your home."

The bioswale is funded in part by a $23,000 grant from the Community Challenge Grant Program, a partnership between the San Francisco Public Utility Commission and the city of San Francisco.

The next Campus Work Party will take place March 29 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. See a video about how SF State is rethinking campus lawns. To learn more about SF State's sustainability efforts, visit or Sustainable SF State's Facebook page.

A photo of SF State senior Graeme Jones rolling up sod.

Graeme Jones, an SF State senior, rolls up sod during a Campus Work Party on Feb. 23, 2012.

A photo of SF State senior Leanne Felly digging up turf.

SF State senior Leanne Feely digs up turf near the Business building to prepare it for a bioswale during a Campus Work Party on Feb. 23, 2012.



-- Jonathan Morales