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Does Landscaping Deserve its Bad Rap as a Water Waster?

FRESNO BEE: Fines, shaming and brown lawns are getting headlines in California. But there’s good reason to keep landscape alive, horticulturists say.

Written by Mark Grossi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

It’s August in a miserable California drought year. People are enduring water-use crackdowns, fines, lawsuits, shaming and brown lawns. And they’re getting a little defensive about the manic push to save water.

The defensiveness surfaced last week when two experts from the University of California at Riverside wrote a commentary saying trees, lawns, shrubs and flowers “are under unrelenting attack.” In support of green spaces in cities, they say landscaping is getting a bad rap as a water waster.

Donald R. Hodel, environmental horticulture adviser, and Dennis R. Pittenger, environmental horticulturist in the UC Riverside Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, wrote the commentary on natural and psychological benefits of landscaping.

The online reaction to the UC Riverside commentary is also interesting. They express strong feelings.

One calls the commentary “the most profound synopsis I have read in a while.”

Another is from someone at the University of California who says the commentary “blind-sided” him: “Do the authors really want for us to start telling people to go ahead and water their lawns in cities with desert climates?”

This summer, that kind of response seems inevitable, even though state regulators have not directly ordered people to kill their landscaping. Some people may see no other choice.

City of Clovis residents, for instance, are being fined if they don’t reduce water use by 36 percent each month. The most logical place to cut water use is landscaping.

The State Water Resources Control Board issued water cutback orders for California cities, including the big reduction for Clovis. Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state board, says this is an emergency, but killing landscape is not on the table this summer.

“Definitely, protect your trees,” Marcus says. “And we’re not asking you to kill your lawn – maybe let it get a little golden. But a lot of people over-water their lawns. For those people, it’s a good idea to save water by cutting back.”

In Clovis, people are trying to meet the state conservation mandate, leaders say. Conservation is the only option left, since the state has not been able to produce more water storage, says Lisa Koehn, assistant public utilities director in Clovis.

“Water agencies are easy targets for regulation and turf is an easy target for reductions,” she says.

City of Fresno spokesman Mark Standriff says most of the water-reduction in his city has been in landscape irrigation. He says big improvements come when the city talks with people who are watering too often or on the wrong day.

“People are cooperative when you tell them there’s a problem and offer to help them,” he says.

At the same time, nobody is denying this has become the summer of the brown, blond or golden lawn. Drive through a few neighborhoods in most San Joaquin Valley cities, and you will see a few of them. They are a popular symbol of conservation, along with lawn removal and installation of synthetic turf or drought-tolerant plants.

The UC Riverside experts say the loss extends beyond greenery. It also includes oxygen production, carbon sequestration, dust control, wildlife habitat, psychological well-being, jobs and recreation, they say.

A few readers have said much the same thing this summer. In late June, I spoke with the Sjobergs, a Fresno couple who use recycled water to keep their yards green.

Jennifer Sjoberg says people need green places to connect with nature. It’s a passion with her.

Says Sjoberg: “We use gray water to stay green. I’m a big believer in green spaces for people, especially for children.”

Read more coverage of the California drought and water issues in the Fresno Bee here:

Top Image: Oscar Lopez shovels up dried grass from Pam Rosales’ front yard in Fresno. Photo by Sylvia Flores, The Fresno Bee

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