When heavy rains filled Lake Lagunita this past winter, the area was reinstated as a campus hot-spot, often bustling with visitors.
On Sunday, May 7, the Stanford Conservation Program capitalized on this buzz by hosting a campus-wide work day at the lake. Attendees split tasks from clearing invasive plant species to picking up trash.
Although the Conservation Program hosts community engagement events at several natural areas on Stanford’s campus throughout the year, the May 7 event at Lagunita was the first of its kind.
“This year, celebrating Earth Day and the hype about Lagunita, we decided to do kind of a ‘Care for Lagunita’ day,” said Stanford Conservation Program Manager Katie Preston. The goal of the event was to involve community members in conservation efforts and educate them about Lagunita — which has long been an enigma to Stanford students.
Historically, the area Lagunita currently occupies existed as a naturally occurring wetland and seasonal pond, fed primarily by a small spring in the foothills. During wet seasons, the area filled, and during dry seasons, it would dry up. In this area, Muwekma Ohlone residents once harvested tules and other water-loving resources. In 1876, Leland and Jane Stanford purchased the land to create an irrigation system to support the Palo Alto Stock Farm — which eventually became the Stanford campus.
Since then, the function of Lagunita has varied, along with its water level. For many years, Lagunita was maintained for recreational use by members of the campus community. However, Stanford stopped using Lagunita for scheduled recreational purposes in 2001, according to the Stanford Habitat Conservation Plan.
Today, it serves as a flood control facility and a habitat for the endangered endemic California tiger salamander.
In order for Lagunita to hold water for more than a few weeks at a time and “provide suitable California tiger salamanders breeding habitat,” water needs to be added — typically between mid-March and mid-June, according to the Stanford Habitat Conservation Plan. Water additions and managed water levels depend on water availability in the San Francisquito Creek, projected use of Lagunita, and the overall functioning of Stanford’s water diversion system.
Because the basin is very porous, tens of thousands of gallons of water must be added per day during the heat of the summer in order to maintain water levels in Lagunita, said Stanford Conservation Program Manager Esther Cole Adelsheim.
“It’s very water-consumptive,” Adelsheim said. “So it’s not a water use type that has been considered very sustainable — especially in periods of prolonged drought.”
In addition, Stanford doesn’t continually divert water into Lagunita because doing so puts San Francisquito Creek’s steelhead trout population, which is classified as threatened, at risk, said Julia DiCicco, who helped beta-test educational signage at the May 7 event. DiCicco hopes that eventually the university adopts permanent signage around the lake to help locals better understand the topography and function of the area.
Despite Lagunita no longer being central to student life on campus as a recreational lake, Adelsheim said it is still critical to academic research.
“Lagunita is a jurisdictional wetland, and as a wetland, it supports a high level of biodiversity,” Adelsheim said, adding that in addition to the California tiger salamander, the lake is home to diverse bird, amphibian, and wetland plant species. “I hope that people would consider both the biological value of the site, but also how their actions might influence the ability of future students to use this resource.”
Adelsheim said campus community members should respect the space by tempering their use of the aquatic environment, especially on the shoreline, where breeding amphibian species and their larvae are at risk of being harmed by human activity.
But this doesn’t mean people should stay away from Lagunita entirely. Instead, the Conservation Program aims to inspire local stewardship and continue involving students in conservation efforts.
“This is an exciting moment for the connection between students and the lake,” said Rachel D’Agui, a conservation technician with the Conservation Program. D’Agui added that turning this enthusiasm into community engagement is an important facet of conservation work.
“I really think it helps contribute to a sense of place and a sense of feeling like you’re at home and not just visiting,” she said. “So I hope that the educational materials we’re brought today, and just this outreach program in general, have an impact on people knowing about the beautiful things that live on this campus with us.”
Malia Mendez graduated with her B.A. in English in 2022. During her undergraduate years, she conducted interdisciplinary research in modernist literature, religious studies, and feminist and gender studies. She also wrote and edited for The Stanford Daily’s Arts & Life section, which cultivated her interest in entertainment journalism. Her work can be found in Spellbinder Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and the Orange County Register. She is from Irvine, CA.