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The Dry Garden: Does rain mean an end to drought?

January 1, 2011 |  7:38 am

Raindrops
Saturday may mark the start of the 2011 calendar year, but the 2011 water year, the 12-month cycle used by hydrologists and water managers, began on Oct. 1.

Few Southern California water years have begun on such a dry note. Three months ago, a strengthening La Niña pattern in the Pacific suggested to climatologists that we were staring at a water year so potentially dry that it could make your voice rasp.

Then in December a weather system known as the Pineapple Express carried near-record rains through California. The upshot in Los Angeles County is that most places have already received half or more of the rain expected for the entire season. It's reasonable to expect that when the 2011 water year ends Sept. 30, we will have reached or surpassed the regional average of about 16 inches, with numbers that are higher in the foothills and lower in the basin.

If we all kept gardens stocked with native plants equipped to survive on local rain, and our properties were all designed to prevent rain from running off into storm drains, this would be manna. But we don't. As cheering as it was to see a new building ordinance passed in December calling for better water management in new construction, we in greater Los Angeles have a long way to go before local rainfall does much more than flow from the streets into the Pacific.

As a region that largely throws away that rainwater, we'd be in trouble if we didn't import water from elsewhere. Recently, elsewhere has been in crisis.

It's true, snow accumulation in two key places has been so good that the California Department of Water Resources recently increased promised deliveries to, among other places, Southern California.

But some may still wonder: Were the predictions of La Niña false? Is there still a drought? Should we still conserve? Should we go back to watering our lawns whenever we want, how much we want?

Raindrops-leaf Briefly answered: No. That's complicated. Yes. And no.

As the U.S. Drought Monitor shows, much of the southern band of the country, from Nevada to Florida, is indeed in the grips of an all-too-real drought, driven by a powerful La Niña. The pooh-poohing of drought forecasts after California got drenched was so Golden State-centric that it prompted John Fleck, science writer for the Albuquerque Journal, to remark, "It would be a truly rare seasonal forecast that wasn't busted somewhere. This one just happens to have busted in a place where a lot of people live."

OK, it's dry elsewhere, but do we in Southern California still face a drought? The answer is complex. Calling our water shortages a "drought" flies in the face of reality. Many even question the use of the word "drought" in a naturally dry place where water use is so detached from local water supplies. We import the bulk of our water from the tributaries of the San Francisco Bay, the glacial snowpack of the Eastern Sierra and the Colorado River.

As Times staff writer Bettina Boxall reported in The Times' news pages recently, two out of three of these sources have done well. The question mark is over the Colorado River, which has been in a drought for more than a decade.

Yet even if all three of these sources have bumper years, all three arguably need to hold back as much water as possible to aid struggling fisheries, to use in dust suppression on dried-out lake beds, to leave adequate amounts for wildlife and to manage reservoir levels. Full reservoirs make peace among western states and keep contaminants diluted.

All that said, being asked to save water after all the rain still feels odd. On a primal level, rain signals an end to scarcity. So here in L.A., the temptation is to turn the sprinklers back on without restrictions. Whether such action is made legal again will be up to local governments, but if we revert to our old ways, it will be like bringing back the gas guzzler after a temporary drop in prices at the pump -- or celebrating a half-foot rise in the Colorado River's Lake Mead, which is 60% empty.

Lawnmower If it's not scary enough that a glass half full is what optimists now dream about, there are other reasons to conserve water: the enormous amount of energy required to move water to our region, the toll paid by the places that we desiccate, and the fumes and racket from lawn-grooming machinery. Add up the benefits of conserving water and you land on the most immediate and meaningful thing that any Southern California home owner can do for the environment in the face of either rain or "drought."

No one conserves water more effectively than the dry gardener, whose economy chips away at the stunning proportion of potable water that we use outdoors. (The percentage generally ranges from 40% by the coast to 60% inland.) Call me prejudiced, but as the gardens featured in this column during the last calendar year so richly illustrate, no one does it more artfully.

On that note, Happy New Year to those who are already water wise -- and to those who want to turn over a new leaf in 2011.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening usually appears on this blog every Friday. You can follow our headlines on sustainable gardening in the West via Facebook.

Photo credits, from top: Patrick Pleul / AFP/Getty Images; David Bundy / Montgomery Advertiser; Los Angeles Times

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