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Brown Is the New Green

Author: Stephanie Derammelaere
May, 2015 Issue

Water efficient, climate appropriate and native species landscaping has become the go-to choice by landscapers, homeowners and commercial properties.

Several years ago, driving by a brown, dried-up lawn in a residential neighborhood’s sea of green would have produced raised eyebrows and an air of indignation at the audacity of “bringing down the neighborhood.” Now, with California entering its fourth year of drought, that same resentful attitude is reserved for the lush green lawns with sprinklers spewing water (that tends to gush down sidewalks and streets). In many areas, the traditional sea of green has been replaced by a rainbow of native plants, artistically clustered together amid innovative walkways and hardscapes. While brown isn’t really the new green (nobody wants to look at a dead lawn), the once-ubiquitous green lawn has nevertheless been replaced by water efficient, climate appropriate, and native species landscaping as the go-to choice by landscapers, homeowners and commercial properties alike.
Sometimes called “dry,” “water-conserving,” “native,” “drought tolerant,” “water smart” or “climate appropriate” landscaping, the true term dedicated specifically to landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation is “xeriscaping.” But whatever name is used, this method saves money and dwindling resources, using up to two-thirds less water than lawns. It also minimizes time and energy through reduced maintenance, restores habitats and reduces waste and pollution (lawn clippings contribute to organic waste in landfills and the use of heavy fertilizers contributes to urban runoff pollution). As xeriscape plants take full advantage of rainfall retention, more water is made available for other domestic and community uses and the environment, which is especially important during drought years.

Our current situation

The North Bay’s drought situation is actually better than other areas of the state, especially since we experienced a few storms this past winter. Most (and in some areas, all) of our water is dependent on local reservoirs and local watersheds, not the dwindling Sierra snow pack. For California as a whole, however, it may take several consecutive wet winters to fully recharge reservoir levels and bring subsoil moisture back to normal, not to mention increasing lower temperatures to help rebuild the snow pack. According to new analysis from NASA satellite data in December, 2014, the state would need 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its three-year dry spell. How much water is that? About the amount that flows over Niagra Falls in 170 days, or roughly the equivalent to filling Lake Meade, the United State’s largest reservoir (located in Pennsylvania), one and a half times. Overall, California’s reservoirs, already depleted after the previous years of drought, are only 58 percent as full as they usually are at this time of year.
According to Brad Sherwood, community and government affairs manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency, it is too early to call off the drought. “We need above-average rainfall to continue into the spring months,” he says. “And timing of rainfall is critical. We need a steady stream of rainfall—not one large storm—due to how the reservoirs are operated under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s flood control operation manual. Too much of anything is not a good thing, and that includes rainfall. Too much rainfall too early in the winter means reservoir storage enters the flood control pool and is therefore released out of the dam. The rain we do get needs to be saved in case we don’t get any more this year.”
On April 1, Governor Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions for the first time on residents, businesses and farms, ordering cities and towns to reduce use across the board by 25 percent. Many North Bay communities had already begun to regulate and reduce. On August 5, 2014, the Santa Rosa City Council adopted Stage 1 of the city’s water shortage plan. The least restrictive of a four stage plan, it requires a 20 percent, community-wide reduction in water use and includes restrictions such as requiring outdoor irrigation to occur between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., the use of hose-end shut-off nozzles on all garden and utility hoses, and “water on request” programs at restaurants. It also prohibits washing down of hardscapes (unless required for public health and safety) and the use of potable water for street washing.
“At this time, Santa Rosa will remain in Stage 1 of its water shortage plan and continue to closely follow and support the statewide effort,” says Kimberly Zunino, water resources sustainability manager for the city of Santa Rosa. “In light of the governor’s order to reduce water-use by 25 percent statewide, Santa Rosa customers will be expected to eliminate water waste and adopt water conserving behaviors. Last year, our customers stepped up to the challenge and reduced water use by 19 percent when asked for 20 percent.

Doing our part

So far, the community has stepped up to the challenge, eliminating water waste and proactively attempting to save water.
“We’re very proud of our customers because they were able to reduce water use by about 19 percent since we asked them to last March [2014],” says Elise Howard, communications coordinator for the city of Santa Rosa. “They’re doing a great job implementing water conserving behaviors.”
Napa, like other North Bay counties and cities, has been trying to encourage water conservation for many years—even before this current drought started. Its long-term goals fall under the “20 by 2020” law, which was enacted in November 2009. This legislation sets an overall goal of reducing per capita urban water use by 20 percent by December 31, 2020.
“We’re on track for the year 2020 target, but that’s a long-term issue,” says Pat Costello, water resources analyst for the city of Napa. “It’s compared to a 10-year baseline period back in the mid-’90s to mid-2000s. You look at your per capita demand during that baseline period and the goal is to get 20 percent below that by the year 2020. You can do a lot of things in the long-term to move in that direction so we’ve always had that. But the drought is, hopefully, a shorter-term issue that’s more of an emergency situation.”
The city of Napa, operating under its Stage 2 water shortage regulations, has implemented the major statewide prohibitions as well as narrowing mandatory restrictions on the hours of outdoor irrigation and prohibiting the draining of swimming pools or ponds, except in cases of a necessary repair or a severe chemical imbalance. As in Sonoma County, Napa residents have risen to the challenge, minimizing water use by 13 percentin 2014 alone, as compared to 2013.
“For the city of Napa, we did pretty well,” says Costello. “We had our lowest water use in about 20 years—and back then, we served 12,000 fewer people and didn’t have the extensive commercial or hotel development that we have in town now. So that makes it even more impressive.”
For Marin County, which is in the unique position of getting most of its water from local storage reservoirs, the current drought situation is much better this year. The early winter storms at the end of 2014 filled reservoirs to capacity that, at the same time the year before, were only 67 percent full. While Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) already had prohibitions on water waste in place since 2012, it altered a few restrictions over the past year, such as narrowing the watering window, although these are all, as yet, voluntary requirements. Even with these restrictions not being mandatory, however, Marin residents have also stepped up to do their part.
“On average, we’re about 16 to 17 percent below the previous year [of water use],” says Dan Carney, MMWD water conservation manager. “The trend in Marin and all over the state is for water use to be down from 10 to 20 percent. We look at that as pretty much a permanent change.”

Incentives that work

What’s certainly helped both residential and commercial property owners comply with new water use restrictions—and dramatically reduce their water consumption—are the various incentives and programs offered by water agencies as well as city and county governments. MMWD, for example, offers rebates for smart irrigation controllers that change watering times based on weather sensors such as temperature, humidity and rainfall.
“We have a program we just started a little while ago called the 5 for 50 program,” explains Carney. “Basically, you can get $50 rebates for five different items, including rain barrels, hot water recirculating pumps, mulch for your garden, parts to put in a laundry-to-landscape grey water system [an irrigation system that uses water from washing machines] and a swimming pool cover. So, you can get up to $250 if you get all the items.”
Many agencies also offer free, in-home surveys or audits to analyze people’s water use, check for leaks and water pressure, teach property owners how to read their water meters and even evaluate their irrigation systems. It’s surprising how often these surveys detect leaks that are wasting precious water.
“About one-third of the time we find leaks that people don’t know about,” says Carney about MMWD’s conservation assistance program. “That’s a lot of water and a lot of money. It’s pretty common. It could be an underground pipe, the flapper in the toilet or a faucet that’s leaking. It can be difficult to detect if it’s in an irrigation system leaking right into the soil.”
Other available programs include popular “cash for grass” programs that rebate customers—up to $1 per square foot in some areas—on the cost of replacing their turf with water-wise landscaping. In Santa Rosa, this has equated to 2.25 million square feet of grass being replaced over the last seven years. For the city of Napa, which started this program in 2010, more than 600,000 square feet of the green stuff has been replaced.
The Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District is also offering cash rebates to residents of the Napa River watershed who install rain gardens and rain barrels/cisterns on their property. Rain gardens are landscaped areas designed to capture and sink runoff from roofs and paved surfaces before it has a chance to flow into stormdrains. Rain gardens installed in the Napa River Watershed are eligible for a 75 percent rebate of up to $5 per square foot (with a maximum of $1,500 for residential properties and up to $5,000 for commercial properties). Besides slowing and sinking stormwater before it has a chance to impact local creeks, using rainwater collected in rain gardens and cisterns instead of potable water for outdoor water needs can help conserve municipal, in-stream and groundwater supplies.
“How a rain garden works is that you catch the water from your downspouts and you almost build a little reservoir in your yard,” explains James Van Winden, co-owner of Van Windens Landscaping, Inc., which has been serving Napa County since 1961. “All your downspouts fill up this reservoir first and then the overflow goes into the street. Basically it’s a homeowner’s or business owner’s bioswale. You don’t want pollutants going straight into the street and straight into the river because actually the biggest pollutant in the bay is silt, followed by oils and other things. The best way to get an immediate filter is to have a bioswale in which you plant plants. In turn, the oils, pollutants and silt attach to the plants before it goes straight into the street and down into the river. In any new Napa construction, housing or business, they’re requiring a bioswale.”

The grass isn’t always greener

Twenty percent of potable water is for urban uses, and approximately 50 percent of that is used for landscapes. Runoff from improperly irrigated landscapes can contain pesticides and fertilizer residue, which pollutes our waterways. Climate-appropriate landscaping with “point source” (drip) irrigation minimizes the potential for this to occur and also reduces erosion and helps both native animal and plant species survive. Changing to these kinds of landscapes also saves water, which, in turn, saves money.
“People respond to their pocketbooks,” says Jay Tripathi, president/CEO of Healdsburg-based Gardenworks Inc., which has been serving the North Bay since 1977. “Aesthetics is one driver and the pocketbook is another. If the pocketbook was being impacted more, through either larger rebates or increased water costs in higher-use tiers, then it could tip the scales in favor of people spending the money to renovate their gardens to put in drought-tolerant landscapes.”
Some items for property owners to consider when making the investment to replace water-thirsty lawns and shrubbery with a more climate-appropriate approach is to plant the right type of vegetation in the right places. They should be native or at least well-suited to our Mediterranean climate and should have low to no water needs. Building in more hardscapes [the non-living, man-made areas of landscaping, such as paved sidewalks, structures, walls, fireplaces and firepits] and choosing drip irrigation over a spray watering system that loses too much water to evaporation are good choices as well.
“Install an irrigation system that takes the hydrozones into consideration,” advises Pierre Marizco, president/CEO of Marizco Landscape Management, which has offices in San Rafael and Santa Rosa and serves most of the Bay Area. He explains: “Different plants require different water. So instead of installing the same system for all plants, install the systems that are appropriate for each variety.”
If nothing else, even just reducing the size of one’s lawn can have advantages, especially if it isn’t being actively used. “If the last time you walked on your lawn was when you mowed it, you should really think about removing it,” quips Marizco.

Small changes make a difference

Short of completely renovating one’s landscaping from scratch to fit xeriscape conditions, there are many smaller things property owners can do right now with their existing gardens to lessen their water use. Mulching all planter beds replenishes nutrients back into the soil, retains moisture and makes plants more efficient growers with less water needed. Turf areas can also be mulched through specialty mulching mowers (or purchasing a kit for one’s existing mower) that don’t pick up grass clippings but rather chops it to such fineness that it blows down into the soil area. This supplies more nutrients to the remaining grass and minimizes the amount of water needed.
Identifying and repairing leaks or breaks in irrigation systems is another obvious first step that every property owner should undertake regularly; valves and pipes can break, and sprinkler seals can deteriorate over time. Last, water according to the climate. Many people turn their irrigation system on in the spring and then forget about it until the next rainy season. However, water needs in April are much different than those in July. One quick fix is to convert to a smart irrigation controller.
“Whether you install a weather station on your property or use the Internet, a smart controller can be programmed so the weather dictates the amount of water used to irrigate,” says Marizco. “That’s a big saver. Many are saying you’ll end up using 30 to 50 percent less water.”

Providing a low-water alternative

One local company, DriWater, has created a product that solves many of the problems related to time, money and water use concerning landscaping, particularly in arid areas or those that are simply too remote to service with traditional irrigation.
DriWater was invented byfood chemist Lee Avera, who recognized the potential of a cellulose gum he was using to thicken peanut butter. It's pure, potable water that’s held in a solid form and can be applied to plants in a variety of settings to water them until they’re established. It can also be used for household and garden plant maintenance. By placing the gel in the soil, the naturally occurring microbes in the soil feed on the cellulose, degrading the gel and letting it become available as water that plants can use. With 98 percent potable water and 2 percent food-grade ingredients, DriWater is natural, environmentally safe and a great solution to establishing and maintaining plants. The slow-release water delivers moisture directly to the roots of plants, establishing trees with less maintenance and ensuring a higher survival rate.
DriWater substantiated its claims by conducting a five-year study, starting in 2009, where the company analyzed the success of planting in late summer and early fall, instead of winter when native plants are traditionally planted. Previously, the thought process was that planting in the winter when the ground is wet establishes plants most efficiently. However, when people return in the spring, they still need to maintain that plant, almost to the same degree as when they first planted it, since plants stay semi-dormant in the winter. However, using DriWater in late summer gives plants three months of water and sunshine, allowing root push to happen before the rainy season.
“We did a test at our facility [in Santa Rosa] where we went out and planted in early August, early September and early October,” says Joe Paternoster, president of DriWater. “We did one application of DriWater, and then we had controls [other oak trees]that we watered for 13 weeks to replicate the timeframe DriWater would take to fully liquefy. We found we had 100 percent survival by doing it that way and, the following year, we had no watering or DriWater use on any of the trees. We were able to establish them with one quart of water, and even on the controls, the amount of water that was used was a few hundred gallons per tree compared to one quart. It really was significant. We’ve been working now with the federal government and some of the state agencies. This year will be the first that they’re going to implement the strategy on a reasonably large scale because it will save them so much money, maintenance costs and water.”
DriWater has been so successful it sells its products all over the world, with some of its biggest customers in the Middle East, where groundwater is scarce and dry, desert conditions amplify the need for vegetation. Other major customers of DriWater include the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, several federal agencies and Caltrans. Even vineyards have proven to be an important customer, mostly for replants of vines in which existing irrigation systems cannot be adjusted to accommodate the new plants.
“In the old days, if you had the third, 18th, 100th and 300th vine die at the same time, you’d put new vines in and then send workers out into the field to try to find the new vines to water them, because you can’t adjust the whole irrigation system for a few vines,” explains Paternoster. “So DriWater is a perfect solution for vineyard replants because now they take one or two units [of DriWater], depending on the irrigation system, when they plant the new vine in July, and that gives it enough water to get established. Then, by the time the DriWater is done, the plant has enough of a root system to participate with the ongoing irrigation.”

Continue the trend

Water agencies, city and county municipalities, and landscape designers and contractors agree that, while we’ve made significant steps in lowering our water use, being more cognizant of water waste and making changes to our landscaping that reflect our climate (which is prone to regular periods of drought), we need to keep working to making these changes last—even when the drought officially ends. Most likely, the future will see cities using more and more reclaimed water for use in landscaping. It will become standard, or even required, for new housing developments to have graywater systems, and we’ll most likely be seeing less and less turf going in to both residential and commercial developments.
“If there’s one message I’d love to get out there,” says Carney, “It’s that the more people can do to conserve water every day, rain or shine, the better off we’ll all be.”

More Resources

For more information on identifying and caring for drought-tolerant plants, choosing a professional, and water conservation and irrigation, check out the resources below:
UC Master Gardener Program (University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources)


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