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The Dry Garden: More drought ahead?


We’ve been getting mixed messages about whether or not we need to conserve water. On one hand, we had a decent local rain year. Last week, the state Legislature pulled a water bond from the November ballot that would have driven statewide conservation. This week, the Los Angeles City Council amended the two-day lawn sprinkler ordinance to a three-day version.

Crisis over?

Not by a long shot. Local rain doesn’t fill our pipes. Of the three main sources that do, Lake Mead, the Colorado River storage reservoir serving Southern California, shrank in July to its lowest level since 1956. Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board concluded that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is overdrawn by 50%. Southern California could do its part to fix that by reducing water use from there by 30%, but more likely we will keep over-drafting the system until courts order stoppages because of the effects on fisheries.

As if things weren’t dicey enough, in early August the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration strengthened its La Nina advisory, a weather cycle that augurs drought for Southern California and two of its three main water sources, the Owens Valley and the Colorado River.

Timothy Barnett, a marine physicist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wants planning to reflect comprehensive risk analysis. “We think it’s important to play ‘What if?,’ ” he said. In 2008, after looking at decreasing Colorado River flows and projected climate change effects, he and a colleague predicted that Lake Mead had a 50-50 chance of running dry in the next 20 years.

Last year, Barnett’s team revised that estimate, allowing that enough water would be kept in Mead to supply Las Vegas, but that scheduled deliveries could be missed from 60% to 90% of the time by mid-century. Who will miss them and how much will depend on how and if we revise the prevailing 19th century priority rights system.

As initially skeptical Western water managers have come around to believing that we are indeed in a dry cycle on the Colorado (they’ve had no choice; the reservoirs are half air), Southern California cities are shifting reliance to water imported from the Bay Area in Northern California. To ensure a constant supply from this source, our regional water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is party to a lawsuit challenging pumping restrictions in place to protect historic salmon fisheries.

Garcia-Garden2 Should we have lawn at the expense of those fisheries? Whether we are aware of it or not, every time our sprinklers turn on, we are choosing lawn.

How worried should we be about the La Nina  prediction? According to Jet Propulsion Laboratory oceanographer Bill Patzert, “La Nina stacks the deck for a dry winter.” Since 1949, according to Patzert, 82% of La Nina years have had below-average rainfall. “You’re going out on a limb if you predict a multi-year drought, but this is a strong La Nina.” 

“The water situation in Southern California is serious,” Patzert added, “But I don’t think it’s dire yet. Six months or a year from now, we might not be using ‘serious.’ We might be using ‘dire.’ ”

The state Legislature passed the five bills behind the water bond in the belief that our situation is serious. Yet it pulled the bond from the November ballot last week because it wasn’t dire – at least not dire enough that lawmakers believed we would accept the $11-billion-plus price tag. The upshot: It’s left to us to split that hair about what we should do when watering our yards.

In leading the charge to expand the lawn watering days, Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith argued that because each cycle will be shorter, the new ordinance will save water. Time will tell if allowing irrigation on more days will result in using less water. It seems unlikely, particularly because during chamber debate, Smith made plain his belief that lawn watering should not be regulated.

Smith also argued that spreading out the watering days would spare city pipes pressure fluctuations that may have caused a rash of leaks last fall; however, Department of Water and Power engineers say main breaks are part of an old system and leaks were no worse during the two-day rule than they were when people watered whenever they wanted to.

Who’s right? And what should we do? Keep lawn? Get rid of lawn? Water more? Conserve? The most forward-thinking act is to landscape in a way that acknowledges the climate and does not take 40% of L.A.’s potable water and put it on lawn. When cutbacks come, the native or Mediterranean climate garden will cope with equanimity. Lawn will be dead.

For those interested in adapting their gardens to a drier, more socially responsible model, here is a list of events designed to help, sponsored by organizations dedicated to conservation of the West.

Sept. 3, 10, 17, 24: Four-part course. Replace your lawn, Tree of Life, San Juan Capistrano 

Sept. 4: Native plant clinic, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont 

Sept. 9: Firescaping with native plants, The Water Conservation Garden, Cuyamaca College, El Cajon

Sept. 11: Design fundamentals with Bob Perry, Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley

Sept. 18, Oct. 2 and 23: Three-part series. Native plant garden design class, Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley

Sept. 18, Native plant horticulture with Lili Singer, Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley  

Sept. 23-26: Gardening under Mediterranean Skies, Pacific Horticulture Symposium, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia 

Sept. 25: Toss the turf, The Water Conservation Garden, Cuyamaca College, El Cajon

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here Friday mornings.

Photos: North Hollywood resident Gilda Garcia replaced her lawn with a mix of drought-tolerant plants. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times


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Comments () | Archives (13)

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Emily - thank you so much for encouraging people to think about this. The new 'restrictions' will in fact be a relaxing of the old ones. It is horrible to think that we are moving backwards. And there is no possible way that this can be monitored.

Gardeners in Southern California can make a huge difference in the water crisis by putting in dry gardens. Cities got about 70% of the increase in Delta exports this decade, which was completely unsustainable. The only way we can save Delta fish from extinction is to reduce our use of Delta water -- which in reality is mostly going to water our lawns.

Doesn't look like this garden needs any water anytime soon. It looks like it can handle a drought.

Unfortunately, our HOA would rather keep the grass, and keep it green instead of conserving water.

They won't budge, despite requests at Board meetings from some of us like-minded residents that it would benefit the conservation aspect, and the cost of owning.

Appearance is everything, as we dry up.

I water my grass 2 times a day everyday for the last 2 years and have no intention of changing it. I do not care who/what my watering affects. LADWP can't catch water violators unless they are doing so blatantly that it's impossible not to see them.

No i am not wiling to give up my nice grass, i will continue watering using my sprinklers even if watering gets banned outright. LADWP is welcome to catch me if they think they can.

How exciting that there are so many resources listed here for ways that gardeners can learn to water more wisely! It definitely IS possible to have a beautiful garden - even during a dry year - and a low water bill. The Pasadena symposium at the L. A. Arboretum will feature bus tours to many inspiring gardens. The more people see great waterwise gardens, the more they'll be willing to make the switch from water-guzzling lawns to native grass and water-thrifty perennials, shrubs and trees.

That's my garden! Thanks for showing it again. It is something that is near and dear to my heart, done w/out the help of a *real* landscaper. I just want to tell your readers that I have watered only parts of the garden this summer, and maybe only 4 or 5 times. Plants in pots require more watering, as do the alleged drought-tolerant blue fescue. I find as the garden matures, less work is required.When we sit on the porch, it feels as though we are on vacation at a country club south of the border! I also want to tell anyone who is interested in the possibility of getting rid of their lawn that you do not need a green thumb. Up until we took out the lawn I had only fake plants and that seemingly indestructible ivy left over from high school in my house. If I can do it, anyone can. And this saves a ton of water.

One hour of a lawn mower pollution equals 11 hours of a car.
Got rid of my lawn over a decade ago. Why? Wanted less maintenance & a prettier landscape. A no brainer at the time.
With current multi-year droughts, higher water costs & higher HVAC costs that choice was an INVESTMENT.
Garden & Be Well, XO Tara Dillard

We removed our expensive and time-consuming grass lawn in April and only wish we had done it years ago! Who even uses their 1950s-era lawn space anymore?

Besides beautiful drought-tolerant plants, we drove up to Oxnard to the Artificial Rocks Factory (Google it) and purchased eight very realistic cast stone boulders that we could place ourselves without cranes and hiring labor. We also liked the fact real rocks didn't have to be removed from the mountains or creekbeds which causes erosion so the fake rocks were actually "green."

Our friends and neighbors like the new look. We like how easy life is these days without being slaves to our lawn!!

It's all well and good for us to get rid of our front lawns but 80% of water use in California is agricultural and we should demand of our farmers real innovation in water use efficiency.

How could any article on this subject not mention this?

Noisy leaf blowers and lawn mowers are things of the past, once a lawn is taken out and replaced with beautiful native vegetation.

What happens when no one has a lawn anymore and there still isn't enough water?

This an increasing issue in states and in even more local levels. It is a greater problem but in the meantime water barrels are a good option. Then when it does rain you can get the most out of it. I like the ones that double as decor too.


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