Drought tolerant plants in Downey

DOWNEY - It is with a sense of anticipation that we embark on this week's topic, for it concerns an approach to water conservation that has been developing in Downey without much fanfare for the greater part of the last three years.To give a bit of historical background, then Mayor Mario Guerra and Downey City Council inaugurated a one-year advisory Green Task Force in May, 2009. The Task Force mission statement included four broad objectives, among them, encouraging "practices to protect the environment," and focusing on "immediate and long-term solutions for conservation, sustainability and education." Simultaneously, California was officially in the second year of a drought, declared by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Green Task Force was commencing its work on the heals of a followup proclamation by the Governor establishing a statewide plan to reduce water consumption in California 20% by 2020. In addition, January 31, 2010, was about to be the trigger date for a Model Ordinance created by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) under Assembly Bill 1881 (2006), which established local landscaping requirements unless a local agency had adopted its own rules at least as effective as the State Model Ordinance. Needless to say, water conservation was a hot topic of discussion at Green Task Force meetings during this period. Among the conclusions reached was that Downey Municipal Code was in fact in compliance with the AB1881 mandates. Moreover, the language of the code opened the door for an evolution in landscape design that is just now beginning--dare we say--to take root. Two key statements in the Code suggest the direction of that evolution. The first permits the limitation of "turf areas" (meaning grass) "to encourage water conservation." The second suggests that landscaping "where appropriate, [should] provide planters which incorporate drought tolerant ground covers, shrubs and trees." A third statement in the Code reads as follows: "A minimum of seventy-five (75) percent of non-turf materials shall be drought resistant. All drought tolerant plant materials shall comply with the list provided by the Planning Division." In late Spring, 2010, when this writer visited the Planning desk on the first floor of City Hall and asked for direction on choices for drought tolerant plants, he was referred by City staff to "WUCOLS III," which turns out to be a 160-page California landscaping guide provided by DWR in conjunction with the University of California Cooperative Extension. ("WUCOLS," by the way, is an acronym for "Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species.") At first glance, a 160-page academic guide would seem to be serious overkill to a guy who just wants to introduce some pretty, water-saving plants to replace sections of a water-guzzling lawn. But take heart, dear readers: help is on the way. Fast forward to 2012. Enter the current Green Task Force, in conjunction with Keep Downey Beautiful, under the direction of Carol Rowland. The new Task Force, once again commissioned as a volunteer advisory committee by City Council, is developing the concept of a limited plant palette to assist residents and businesses in selecting drought tolerant landscaping. The two committees have also jointly contacted Downey resident and landscaping expert Catherine Pannell Waters for a list of potential possibilities. In the spirit of all good serial drama, we will end this week's episode as a cliffhanger, just as the hero arrives on the scene. And next week we will begin to look at how our hero saves this damsel in distress--and how appreciable water conservation benefits can be achieved through drought tolerant landscaping.

********** Published: March 01, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 46