Irene O’Connell and Brandon Hayward work on a mural at UCSC. (Photo by Georgia Perry)

UCSC senior Irene O’Connell is talking about how we need to “evolve out of our wartime economy,” and the importance of transparent decision-making. Unfortunately, I can’t focus on a thing she’s saying, as I am absolutely hypnotized by the loving, intense way she’s painting a teal letter “S” (for “Sustainable”) on the side of a water tank in the Pogonip redwood forest. With the afternoon sunlight glinting off the silver rings on her hand, she gently holds the paintbrush with her thumb and index finger and intently goes over this simple six-inch “S” at least a dozen times, almost caressing it. Let’s put it this way: this is not your typical protest sign.

O’Connell and a group of about a half dozen fellow UCSC students have been coming up to the woods since October to paint four water tanks based on her designs, which have to do with conserving the forest around campus and promoting sustainable growth, especially when it comes to water. 

Painting on these tanks, the sides of which are covered in constantly evolving graffiti, is a kind of accepted form of illegal activity in these parts, it seems. Today she is painting the last one, which calls for the university to stick to its pledge of promoting sustainable development. She expects her murals will last at least three to six months before being painted over by another graffiti artist or muralist, which she says is the general protocol. 

Her message, though, she hopes will be more permanent. “The university wants to bring in 3,500 more students,” she says, referring to the university’s Long-Range Development Plan, which aims to accommodate up to 19,500 by 2020. “When you think about bringing in all those students you have to think about water and energy. We’re in a water crisis in this county.”

The plan allows for about 3,175,000 gross square feet of additional building space, projecting that approximately 65 percent of new development will be woven through the already developed portion of the campus. The rest will be built in the as-yet undeveloped North campus. This potential increase of a few thousand students would also require more water, which O’Connell says is “where things get political.”

Guy Lasnier, UCSC Public Information Officer, points to the university’s water conservation efforts, such as non-flush urinals in men’s restrooms and a sophisticated moisture-sensing device that allows for less water to be used for landscaping. “We’ve cut water use by about 35 percent per person in the last 10 years,” he says.

Nonetheless, O’Connell believes the top administrators at UCSC aren’t being as forthcoming as they could about the campus’ planned growth. This is what the mural she’s painting today addresses: UCSC’s supposed commitment to sustainable growth.

“The university has this language that it uses in its own websites and statements, ‘We want to promote sustainable development in our campus growth.’ But it’s like, does a desal plant and paving roads where they don’t already exist and manicuring lawns that need to be watered, is that sustainable?” she asks.

Alongside the visual aspects of O’Connell’s murals, which include a planet Earth cradled in a sweeping ocean wave, a metallic Coho salmon and a cartoon Lorax standing in a field of chopped-down redwoods, she and her group of fellow guerilla muralists have penned websites people can check out for more information about sustainable water growth. In particular, one mural encourages viewers to attend the Dec. 5 Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) meeting, at which a public hearing on the city of Santa Cruz’s methods for providing water and sewer services to UCSC’s North campus will take place. If LAFCO does not allow water services to extend to the North campus, O’Connell says, the university will have another hurdle in the way of its Long-Range Development Plan.