(This post has been updated to correct changed links regarding City of South Pasadena water use ordinances. 2021)
As soon as Halloween passes two things occur – commercials for holiday shopping flood the air waves, and the city of South Pasadena starts to smell like a farm. Residents here rush to spread manure and rye grass seed on their close-cropped lawns. As Thanksgiving approaches the daily irrigation and pungent air yield bright green yards that make the Emerald City look dull.
A few words of explanation are in order for those of you from other parts of the world who, like me when I arrived, find this behavior to be bizarre. Although you may hear “southlanders” bemoan the lack of seasons, when the weather starts to change, people go to amazing lengths to keep everything else the same. Summer annuals are pulled out and cool season flowers are planted. As warm season grasses start to tone down with decreasing sun and temperatures, out comes the manure and grass seed. What, no seasons? There is summer grass and winter grass – both very green and thirsty. There are salvias, petunas and impatiens for summer time; snapdragons, pansies and primroses for winter. All colorful, all thirsty.
So why is it that people in my city, South Pasadena, can so readily embrace landscape practices that are the equivalent to driving a Hummer? Do we not have a water shortage here? To get the answer I first checked the city’s website to find out what water restrictions exist. I clicked on City of South Pasadena, Department of Public Works, Water. To my surprise I found nothing about watering guidelines or restrictions. So I called the city to see whether I just missed it. A city employee carefully instructed me to click on Municipal Code, Chapter 35 (Water), and then Article II: Water Conservation (not Article III: Water Conservation in Landscaping). On the next screen I was instructed to click on Water landscape. And finally it appeared:
35.43 Water landscape.
It shall be unlawful for any person to water landscaping, including lawn area, between the hours of nine a.m. and five p.m. Lawn areas shall be deep soaked, but in no case longer than fifteen minutes per station or location or in violation of Section 35.42 of this chapter. Drip irrigation is exempt. (Ord. No. 1992, § 3; Ord. No. 1995, § 1.)
So here it is: no watering between 9 and 5. That makes sense, water during cool hours of the day to reduce water loss through evaporation. Though the city encourages this practice there is no actual enforcement of the ordinance. Still I do observe during my daily walks with my dog, Milo, that residents typically, though by no means always, follow this practice.
The next part of the ordinance – water deeply but in no case longer than 15 minutes per station or location – makes no sense at all. In 15 minutes the water will barely penetrate the soil, resulting in shallow-rooted plants, whether they are grasses or large majestic trees. This watering recommendation requires frequent, possibly daily, watering to keep plants alive. The shallow roots are susceptible to heat, and the frequent constant moisture encourages the growth of soil pathogens (disease-causing bacteria and fungi). This recommendation puts the wonderful coast live oak trees that our city is so fortunate to have at great risk.
The part about “in violation of Section 35.42 of this chapter” states that irrigation cannot runoff into the street or on walks.
It shall be unlawful for any reason to allow water to run in such a manner so as to have runoff overflowing the walkway on private property or the sidewalk on public property. Where no sidewalk exists, water shall not be used in any way so as to flow over the curb or into any gutter or street, private or otherwise. (Ord. No. 1992 § 2.)
My informal observations are that this one is not followed or enforced. The occurrence of broken or misaligned sprinkler heads is extremely common. The streets here are well-watered.
Next I called the City Water Manager. He explained that the residents of South Pasadena are actually doing a good job of conserving without further restrictions. He stated that there was a 15% reduction in water consumption over last year. Furthermore, he told me that South Pas is purchasing little water from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
Again, for those unfamiliar with the water practices of our state, water is provided to municipalities in many different ways. Some get water from municipal water districts that are sister agencies of MWD. Our city is its own water provider. Most of our water comes from local groundwater wells in the nearby town of San Gabriel. Any additional water that we require is sold to the city by the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. I was assured by the Water Manager that the water quality from these wells has been improving. Only one of the three wells occasionally exceeds the maximum allowable pollutant levels for drinking water. When this happens, additional water from the other two wells brings the supply into compliance, with little USGVMD water required.
Although it is reassuring to hear that our water supply is clean and adequate, I find it very difficult to believe we are somehow exempt from the water crisis that MWD and the governor have been inundating (pun intended) the populace with. I have asked the Water Manager to send me water usage figures for the past five years. I’d like to see how our water consumption compares with other cities in our area. As I get more information I will be sure to pass it along. In the mean time, remember water is a precious resource. Keeping your lawn emerald green right now may result in much greater sacrifice later.