Drought and the garden

Download PDF

The news reports on California’s drought are dire. However, the drought did not happen overnight, we are now in our fourth year of drought. Nevertheless, for years my city, South Pasadena, like many others, did not take a proactive role on water conservation. The lushness of South Pasadena is apparent every time one crosses into the city. Designated a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation, we take pride in our tree-lined streets. Unfortunately, we also take pride in our emerald green lawns.

To be fair, South Pas has done more than many cities to encourage water conservation through a tiered water rate system adopted in 2011. Since that time, despite objections by many, water rates have increased dramatically and heavy users have seen the largest increases. The changes were necessary to encourage conservation but also to insure that there was adequate funding needed to provide water:

Officials said the rate changes were needed so that the city’s water fund can be self-sufficient. The fund faces a $500,000 deficit at the end of the fiscal year in July without the increase, officials said.

The hike is also necessary to meet the city’s water debt coverage; to keep its water bonds from going into technical default; and to complete the city’s $60 million reservoir repairs project. (South Pasadena’s water rate model not set in stone, Pasadena Star News, 1/13/2011).

Yet, even with our higher water bills and tiered billing system, we find ourselves in the company of other lush, water-guzzling cities who will be required to cut water usage by a whopping 35%. This group includes cities whose daily per capita water consumption in September 2014 exceeded 165 gallons: LaCañada (397 gallons), Palos Verdes (271 g), and Beverly Hills (217 g). Alas, South Pas joins the group with a water usage of 166 gallons per person per day. Not only did we barely squeak into this elite group, our city dropped its daily per capita water consumption by 9% from February 2013 to February 2015. This, too, distinguishes us from these other cities who actually saw water consumption either stay the same or increase during this period of drought: LaCanada: 0% change, Palos Verdes: 1% increase, and Beverly Hills: 3% increase.

When Governor Brown’s plan was released I was pleased to see that cities using less water per person would not have to reduce water usage as much as those using far more. Cities with the lowest per capita water consumption are mandated to cut 10%, while cities with the highest users must reach for 35%, averaging a 25% cut in residential water consumption statewide. Since residential water use accounts for about 20% of the state’s total water use, this will result in a savings of 5%.

Requiring every city beyond an arbitrary cut off to shoulder the same burden – South Pasadena at 166 gallons per person per day, and LaCanada at 397 gallons per person per day must cut water consumption by 35% – does not seem like a fair formula, either. Hopefully this inequity will be addressed, possibly using a formula similar to the tiered billing system. A base amount of water per person could be provided to each city. Water allocations beyond this amount would be cut by appropriate percentages. It is possible that this is the way the new water allocations will be made, though it has not been presented this way in the media.

The buzz in South Pas is all about tearing out the lawn and replacing it with a low water-use garden. The desire to do the right thing is palpable. Unfortunately, there is another significant consideration and that is: the trees. Our city is graced with large, old street and landscape trees. These trees, whether coast live oaks, Engelmann oaks or magnolias, have been growing among our heavily watered lawns. The coast live oaks that pre-date development have generally suffered from the excessive summer irrigation, while other trees, mostly non-natives, can only survive with year around water. We can remove our lawns but if we drastically reduce irrigation, many trees will die. The city will become hotter and energy consumption from air-conditioning will increase. I can attest to how important properly placed trees are to keeping our homes cool. Losing a mature avocado tree on the south side of our house has made the upstairs bedrooms noticeably hotter. We have insulated the walls and put opaque white shades in the windows. We are planning to install awnings as well, but that tree did a whole lot to keep our air-conditioning cost low and our house comfortable. The catch is that energy production requires water.

Outdoor water conservation efforts should be directed at reducing lawns and high water-use plants while maintaining the urban canopy. In South Pasadena we are seeing many trees that are in decline due to the drought. Homeowners should be instructed on how to remove their lawns without further endangering their trees. The proper use of mulch and infrequent but deep-watering techniques should be encouraged. Rebate programs should support horticultural practices that make sense in our mediterranean climate, especially planting in late fall to winter when less supplemental irrigation will be needed and new plants have the best chance of survival. The current turf-removal rebate program ends on June 30 and requires immediate replacement of lawns with drought tolerant landscaping. Frankly, it is irresponsible to require homeowners to replant with the hot, dry season upon us. Adding to this the potential damage to trees which could lead to an increase in energy use, accompanied by an increase in water required to produce that energy, one must wonder whether a savings of 5% from reduced irrigation will actually save us any water at all.

oak trees
Street shaded by valley oaks and coast live oaks.

9 thoughts on “Drought and the garden

  1. Saurs

    Yes, yes, yes to the ultimate paragraph. Very well said. Preserving valuable “soft” infrastructure, particularly public trees, has to be a priority. The emphasis in the government’s literature on “drought tolerant” plants combined with low-volume irrigation is a bit worrying, though. Mediterranean perennials, native annuals, and succulents might survive on drip, micro-sprays, and bubblers, but these won’t water deep enough for woody root systems, and drip can cause problems for some native plants that have adapted to winter rain (mimicking high-volume systems) and summer dormancy. This calls for a massive re-education of both local governments and residents alike — aimed at reducing run-off, irrigating when evaporation is at its lowest, employing deep but infrequent watering once material has been established — and the debunking of some received wisdom about how a low-water garden functions and what it ought to look like.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Saurs, Excellent points on the need for “massive re-education…” Right now I have a small sprinkler set up near my wild grape. I noticed earlier today that it was slightly wilted. The growth is young and it should not be wilting now. I raked the mulch away and set up the sprinkler this evening. I have been outside several times to check to see whether the water has penetrated the soil. The soil is quite dry and the water – which is sprinkling very gently – has not penetrated. It does no good to just wet the surface, so I will keep checking it. Once the water penetrates I’ll cover the soil with the mulch and hopefully will not need to water again for a couple of weeks. Most people just don’t check to see where the water is!

      I do think that drip can and will play a big role in efficient irrigation, but people will need to learn how to use it.

  2. Anon

    Water fee schemes that are politically/socially correct-based and not cost-based are essentially socialism which is generally not what America is about. I believe they are ultimately counter productive and inefficient so I generally do not favor them.

    Regarding South Pasadena water costs: we, the city, have irresponsibly ignored our water system (and our street, sewer, sidewalk systems) for too long. Now we are having to pay for upgrading the outdated system and that is why our water bills are going up. I believe the actual cost of the water itself from the aquifer is “free”, the rights having been acquired many years ago.

    Even if one used little or no water, one’s water bill would still have to go up in order to replace aging pipelines, pumps, valves, reservoirs, etc. not because the cost of the aquifer water price went up.

    It is hard to believe South Pas water usage is ranked so high. As you well know, most yards in our city have very modest lawns. And our high school has artificial turf!

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      As we confront these really difficult problems of aging infrastructure and resource limitations, we need to hear different opinions rather than just confining our discussions to the groups of people who are in agreement. So thank you for your above comment.

      As you know, it is my feeling that providing essential resources is actually a “socialistic” function, though I don’t like to use the word because it is so divisive. I do agree, though, that the decision on how to charge for these services is complicated and sometimes something that seems “politically/socially correct” can have unintended consequences that are not in the public interest.

      If we took your argument regarding the cost of the water itself being very low (and by the way, when we exceed our aquifer allocation, we pay dearly to MWD for supplemental water), and spread the charge for infrastructure costs equally among the population, there would be no financial incentive to conserve water; it seems that without a financial incentive there would be little conservation.

      I heard from someone on city council that they had a hard time getting correct numbers on water usage from Global and are still checking them out. I agree that it does seem a bit unbelievable that we use so much water per capita. We also have a significant number of people living in apartments – just doesn’t seem right. ~Barbara

  3. Anon

    You bring up excellent counter-points. It is a very interesting topic and subject to many points of view.

    An interesting anecdotal story regarding water metering from my experience with the VERY limit water system on Catalina Island:

    Several years ago I was reviewing the water usage reports SCE sends annually to the CPUC. (Anyone can look them up on the internet.) It turned out that the water metered out of the source water pumps was about TWICE the total of water metered to the users! So where was all that water going?? Indeed. I gently brought the discrepancy up to SCE’s manager on Catalina and left it for her to deal with.

    It would be interesting to see a similar report for South Pasadena.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      @Anon. I think it would be very interesting to see how water usage reports from Global compare with actual water drawn from aquifers and purchased from USVMWD. No doubt there are plenty of leaky pipes out there!

  4. Katherine

    You make excellent points about the importance of maintaining the tree canopy, and the wisdom of incentivizing people to install new landscaping at the beginning of the rainy season — not the beginning of the dry season. Seems like it would make sense for folks to plan their new landscaping this spring and summer — while allowing their lawns to go dry, removing lawns, accumulating mulch, and/or watering as sufficient to maintain mature trees — then install the new landscaping in the fall. There will be a transition period when the yard is not “done,” but to my mind it is not much different from other home improvement projects such as painting, repaving driveways, doing home additions, etc. — such projects can take weeks and months but we live through them, and are repaid for our patience with well-planned improvements. I would hope that at this point most people would pardon a homeowner during this transition period, since they are helping the community by saving water, but maybe the turf removal rebate program should include an official City of South Pasadena sign saying something like “Please pardon us as we transition to low-water use landscaping” — and some educational text on the fact that it is best to install most plants in the fall.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Thanks, Katherine. South Pas does have some signage like you suggest. Nevertheless, the city uses the USGVMWD rebate program and there are restrictions on how long a garden can be bare. Basically the lawn must be removed and replanted quickly – I don’t know exactly the time frame. Maybe this will change to encourage planting at the beginning of the cool, wet season.

  5. weedingwildsuburbia

    Big news on tiered billing system to encourage water conservation:

Comments are closed.