Rethinking California’s urban landscapes: Making an Oroville-sized change

Enough water to fill Lake Oroville and then some is flowing out onto urban landscapes each year, according to DWR

Enough water to fill Lake Oroville and then some is flowing out onto urban landscapes each year, according to DWR

It’s enough water to fill Lake Oroville and more, and it’s flowing out on to lawns and landscapes in cities and communities across the state each year, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR).  But with the state deep in drought and water supplies dwindling, there's a movement underfoot that's hoping to change that.

DWR estimates that nearly four million acre-feet of water is used across the state each year to sustain urban residential and commercial landscapes with much of that going towards sustaining the lush lawns we’ve become accustomed to. And with outdoor water use accounting for at least half of all residential water use, the potential for savings is substantial. “That leaves a lot of room for water use efficiency,” said Diana Brooks, Chief of DWR's Water Use and Efficiency Branch. “This is a place where we need to come together to make water conservation and water use efficiency a priority.”

With drought focusing the public’s attention on dwindling water supplies, there may be no better time to convince Californians to give up their thirsty lawns, and the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a partnership of urban water agencies, public interest organizations and private entities, has been working on a plan to do just that. The Council hopes to redefine a ‘new normal’ for California landscapes that emphasizes using climate appropriate plants to create landscapes that require less water and less maintenance as well as fewer pesticides and fertilizers.

New Norm latestThe benefits of adopting a ‘new normal’ in urban landscapes has multiple benefits that extend from our homes and far into the watershed. Most people do not readily understand the connection of how the products applied on their landscapes migrates through the urban environment, eventually reaching local waterways and causing a host of water quality problems that impact local waterways, beaches, fish and wildlife – even the Delta.  Addressing contamination in urban waterways from stormwater runoff is one of the priorities for the State Water Resources Control Board, with new stronger regulations expected later this year.

Pesticides in the local waterways has long been recognized as a problem and one that the Department of Pesticide Regulation has been working to address; however, recent regulations designed to reduce the amount of pesticides in urban runoff have had little, if any effect. The key to solving the problem is improving the use of pesticides in urban areas, says Brian Leahy, Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. “We need to start reaching the homeowners and the ‘mow and blow’ guys.”

Leahy acknowledges it is hard to educate 38 million consumers, but the Department is looking at ways to meet that challenge. “We need to look at retailers and figure out how responsible they need to be. We need to look at the landscaping professionals and maintenance workers and make sure they are trained. We need to address language challenges and do more outreach to homeowners as well.”

But Leahy thinks there is a better path in working to reduce or even eliminate the need for so using so many chemicals. “They are trying to grow landscaping material that is really challenging in the climate and growing conditions that we have, so maybe we need to change that.”

But how do you change the hearts and minds of the public?

landscape seminarsGreg Weber, Executive Director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, says the answer isn’t in increased regulations, but instead in an approach that relies on partnerships, incentives and other motivations to move a product or idea beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream. “The homeowner, the landscape contractor, the gardening equipment supplier, and the public agencies all have a role in offering incentives, demonstrations, and messaging,” said Weber. “It takes partnerships to move something like this forward.”

In the upcoming weeks, the Council will host a pair of symposiums that will bring together all stakeholders to brainstorm ideas and define action steps to accelerate the pace of change towards the ‘new normal.’ At the symposiums, scheduled for Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday, May 22, and Citrus Heights on Thursday, May 29, officials from the State Water Board, Department of Water Resources, Department of Pesticide Regulation and CalRecycle will discuss the role of their agencies in bringing about landscaping changes. Watershed groups and landscaping coalitions will discuss successful partnerships and collaborations at the regional and local level, highlighting regional examples of success. Small group discussions will focus on eliciting ideas from participants to identify the challenges, opportunities, partnerships, and specific actions that need to be taken in order to make the change.

Sustainable landscapeWith the symposiums, what we’re trying to do is identify the various pieces of the puzzle that need to partner together to get these early adoptions to become the ‘new normal’ of what a beautiful, sustainable California landscape is,” said Weber.

In the long run, the success of creating a ‘new normal’ will depend on public acceptance, with behavior change being the most challenging and critical aspect. Public opinion surveys have shown that many homeowners remain wary about “water-efficient” landscapes as it often evokes the idea of a dry, parched landscape exemplified by cactus and rocks.  However, California’s Mediterranean climate actually supports a rich diversity of possibilities. “The idea is to improve people’s experience and their standard of living,” said Weber. “They will have a sense of personal satisfaction while helping the environment and sustaining local wildlife, whether its birds, bees, or butterflies.”

This is meant to be an upgrade, not a compromise,” Weber said.

2 Responses

  1. Wayne Lusvardi

    According to David Powell, P.E., former head of the San Diego Office of DWR and former chief planning engineer with Bookman-Edmonston Engineering, the one-size-fits-all policy of tearing out lawns is short sighted and would deplete local aquifers in communities on sandy soils with subsurface water basins that rely on imported water for a significant amount of their water supplies.

    The reason is that in dry years conservation is critical not only in agricultural areas but in urban areas, particularly with watering home landscaping. But during wet years it is just as critical to water lawns in order to recharge the groundwater basin with imported water. Hydrologists for the Raymond Basin, for example, in Pasadena, use a 15% recharge rate per year mainly from imported water during wet years.

    This doesn’t apply to communities on clay or sandstone soils, on communities that rely on 100% of their own groundwater and no imported water, or in dry years.

    If we tear out lawns a significant amount of recharge to local water basins will be lost from imported water. 15% per year recharge rate means a near total loss of recharge from imported water over a 6 year period.

    The DWR among many other agencies use a figure of 70% of household water goes to landscaping. This is inflated. The best study we have in San Diego is landscaping uses 44% of household water. According to DWR data, urban uses comprise 13% of all system water in a dry year. If 44% of that goes to landscaping that is only 5.7% of all system water.

    5% is not a trifling of water when farmers water allocations are cut to 5% in dry years such as this year. But that 5% can be achieved from conservation during dry years without tearing out lawns and ruining residential property values. Most communities have ordinances that require a certain percentage of the lot area of a home or apartment building must be landscaped. DWR’s policy would usurp home rule and would deplete local water basins that need to be recharged in critical wet years when we need to store up water for dry years.

    What we’re going to end up with is low income neighborhoods tearing out lawns and residents using the bare dirt for parking cars which is a reality in many overly dense neighborhoods in older cities where there is not enough off street parking.

    HUD Community Development Block Grant Program has worked for decades to combat neighborhood blight by offering rehab loans to low income homeowners and implementing neighborhood revitalization projects. DWR’s short sighted policy would negate such programs and return to neighborhood blight, which has been connected with higher crime rates.


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