Brandeis begins shift to organic land management
The Office of Sustainability plans to implement a newly-improved irrigation system to cut down water waste.
This year, the University’s Facilities, Services, and Grounds Offices worked closely with the Office of Sustainability to transition from inorganic land products, gas-powered equipment, and outdated irrigation systems.
In a March 20 interview conducted over email, Mary Fischer, associate director of the University’s sustainability programs, told the Justice that these changes come from a successful Brandeis Sustainability Fund Proposal by Herbicide Free Brandeis and were completed in partnership with Chris Gould and Lori Kabel from Facilities Services and Campus Operations.
Herbicide Free Brandeis’ proposal was approved for a trial last spring, and after a successful run in the lower campus, the Sustainability Committee intended to expand the new land management program over the west side of campus, from the Faculty Club area through the North Quad, according to Fischer.
In a March 20 email interview with the Justice, Chris Gould, the Facilities Grounds and Fleet manager, explained that this expansion comes from a need for more data before the project moves toward the center of campus. He said, “We, however, wanted to make sure we still expanded the program so [we] looked towards the adjacent west-side to move to next.”
The pilot introduced a successful set of changes that are to come to these areas of campus within this season. Some of these changes include: replacing the use of the inorganic herbicide Roundup with organic herbicidal soap FinalSan; replacing an inorganic pesticide with organic Grubgone G, adding new fertilizers and grass seed, and introducing a new team of electrically powered appliances. The University is also beginning to upgrade its irrigation system to include controllers manufactured by BaseLine in an effort to reduce water consumption on campus.
Replacing the use of Roundup as the lands’ herbicide was a significant change because it contains glyphosate, a chemical that Environmental Health News describes as the most widely-used herbicide in the world. It’s a non-selective chemical that kills most plants. Glyphosate-based herbicides are commonly used on lawns, gardens, parks, and school grounds to control unruly weeds and create a manicured space. Beyond Pesticides details that the herbicide works by disrupting a pathway for manufacturing amino acids in plants. While it is not intended to have detrimental effects on animals and humans, it has been associated with a number of illnesses, such as non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, genetic damage, liver and kidney damage, endocrine disruption. Beyond Pesticides even describes that the antibiotic property of glyphosate destroys bacteria that lives in the human gut and causes disease and destruction within soil’s microbiota, which then contributes to cancer, obesity, asthma, celiac disease and many other “21st century diseases.” Glyphosate also has harmful effects on the environment — it contaminates water sources and is toxic to microorganisms and aquatic organisms.
However, a study by South Dakota State University explains that organic herbicides are safer for both humans and the environment because of their natural and faster breakdown. On the other hand, inorganic herbicides tend to linger in water sources and soil because the chemicals cannot be broken down by natural processes. Thus, the decision to switch to FinalSan, an organic and non-selective weed killer — and only opt to use it on a need-basis — is a much healthier alternative than previously using Roundup.
Moreover, inorganic pesticides, much like inorganic herbicides, contaminate their ecosystems because many of them are complex compounds that do not dissolve in water. Organic pesticides, like Grubgone G, generally come from natural sources, such as minerals, plants, or animals, making them easy to break down by weather or soil. These organic pesticides tend to be safer than their inorganic counterparts, but this distinction is not always the case. Virginia State University specifies that some organic pesticides can be dangerous. However, Grubgone states that the pesticide’s active ingredient, Bt — bacillus thuringiensis — comes from a “naturally occurring soil bacterium.” Gould clarified that the University uses this organic pesticide to control white grubs, which are immature forms of scarab beetles. White grubs prune plants’ roots, killing them.
“As for using organic [products], there is always a discussion within Facilities Services and the Office of Sustainability evaluating environmental impacts and budgetary constraints. These discussions will continue to happen as we move forward with a reduction in synthetic products,” Gould said. “We analyze every problem and product and look into products that work best to solve the issue and are best for Brandeis and our environment.”
Gould also explained that the employment of new fertilizer and grass seed varies depending on the location, but he clarified that the fertilizer from last year was a Nature Safe 10-2-8 fertilizer that worked well and will likely be used again this year. According to the website, this fertilizer is a sulfate of potash — potassium carbonate — mixture which also includes feather meal, meat and bone meal, and blood meal.
In respect to grass seed, Gould wrote, “Most of the campus has Kentucky BlueGrass grass seed blend with perennial ryegrass and fescues. This is an approved A-list variety. This has shown to need lower inputs, such as water, fertilizer and pesticides, in order to thrive through trials making this attractive to Brandeis.”
Another part of the new land management practices is the new electric-powered leaf blower and electric trimmer, in addition to the electric chainsaw and hedge trimmers that the University already has. Gould outlined some of the benefits of transitioning from traditionally gas-powered appliances, “Reducing our dependence on gas and oil is one of the most important reasons; not to mention the reduction of risk in leaking any oil or gas. In addition, these pieces of equipment also don’t need oil changes which are labor intensive and costs additional money. Another benefit is these tools and equipment are often quieter and this benefits not only the [operators] but also the surrounding community. Although we can’t switch over entirely, we will continue to move forward with changes as much over as we can.”
In addition to these new land practices, the University is also upgrading its irrigation system to include BaseLine controllers. “This upgrade will not only identify areas we have leaks but gives us centralized software allowing us more control over water conservation,” Gould said. “This irrigation system/program will ensure we are not overwatering and will identify and shut off the system during rain events.”
According to Gould, irrigation locations are dispersed throughout campus and its athletic fields, with most of the areas on Loop Road being irrigated as well. He clarified that the University has no plans to add new irrigation sites and is looking for more ways to conserve water and create areas that do not require water to survive. The Office of Sustainability estimates that this upgrade will reduce the use of 1.5 million gallons of water annually.
These improvements to land management come after a series of improvements that have taken place over the past years. Gould mentioned the University’s recent Master Grounds Plan that outlines its standards for land practices, the first tree replacement program, and compost use. He explained that under the tree replacement policy, 15 trees were planted last year, and now Facilities Services and Grounds can look forward to planting more as well as and using compost in organic areas provides soil with nutrients. “We look forward to in the future using our own leaf compost from the leaves taken off of Brandeis as compost in these areas,” said Gould. “Our goal is for a campus that not only is inviting to the students but one that is sustainable and continues to improve our environment.”