Lawns, baseball and apple pie

DOWNEY - So what's all the brouhaha over drought-tolerant plants, anyway? They've been mentioned seven times in this column since last July, as well as in the city-published information sheet on saving water which has been the reference point for a significant portion of this ongoing series extolling the virtues of water conservation.A previous article also touched upon the existence of rebates in the City of Long Beach which are being provided for converting lawns to drought-tolerant landscaping. But why not just stick with the old familiar grass lawn, which--since the invention of the suburb--has been as American as baseball and apple pie? Okay, that was a loaded question. Nevertheless, a reasoned and deliberate answer is still worth the effort, including not only a brief review of information that has already been detailed in this series, but also some new perspective based on current and anticipated weather and water patterns. First of all, water is always a precious and coveted resource, as protracted water rights litigation demonstrates, not only between Downey and the Water Replenishment District, as is currently appearing in the local news, but in many other places throughout the country and around the globe. Secondly, Southern California is a semi-arid region (as defined by climate scientists) which imports billions of gallons of water annually to serve the needs of its ever-increasing population. And the outlook for that water supply is bleak this year, with snowpacks as of February 28 at 30% of normal and only 26% of "the average April 1 measurement, when the snowpack is normally at its peak," according to the California Department of Water Resources. Third, weather events regionally, nationally, and globally are increasingly severe and erratic. 2011 has been characterized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of the most extreme on record, and data from additional sources catalogs some 3,000 weather records broken last year in the U.S. alone. Finally, estimates unanimously put landscaping irrigation at thirty to seventy percent of all residential water use in this country. Returning to the grass lawn, clearly it was introduced into California landscaping as a reflection of a suburban midwestern and east coast predilection, and has long since supplanted the indigenous drought-tolerant plants that native Americans would have experienced centuries ago in this semi-arid clime. Frankly, a traditional grass lawn in this region makes about as much sense as having a polar bear as a pet here: not only is it completely unsuited to the climate, but its sustenance will have to be imported--at great trouble and expense. In light of all these sobering considerations, an elegantly simple solution presents itself: restore some of what nature has already figured out in the first place. In short, replace turf lawns with California-native and drought-tolerant plants. As mentioned above, the City of Long Beach is already providing rebate incentives for its citizens to switch from grass to drought-tolerant landscaping. But Long Beach is not alone. Numerous California cities, including Azusa, Hayward, Roseville, Livermore, Windsor, Dublin-San Ramon, Lafayette, Oakland, Pleasanton, Vacaville, Indio, San Diego, Santa Rosa, Palo Alto, and Santa Monica, have current rebate programs for lawn conversion to drought-tolerant landscaping. Santa Monica, in fact, has conducted a side-by-side comparison of "sustainable vs. traditional" landscaping at two adjacent homes near Santa Monica College. This comparison resulted in approximately 90% irrigation savings through sustainable landscaping over "traditional" landscaping, which included a grass lawn--not to mention enormous reductions in yard waste and maintenance time. To the question, "How much water does a sustainable landscape save?", San Diego sustainable landscape guidelines point out that "turfgrass uses between 14 and 40 gallons of water PER SQUARE FOOT [emphasis added] annually." In summary, back in Downey, the proposed Keep Downey Beautiful/Green Task Force drought-tolerant plant palette introduced in this column two weeks ago represents modest forward movement towards a new landscaping paradigm in Downey which has already been embraced by numerous California cities and counties. It's a baby step, but a step in the right direction.

********** Published: March 22, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 49