Lawn water: A fix for the drought?

Northern California's Lake Oroville, the state's largest reservoir, formed by the Feather River and Oroville Dam. (Photo: Quinn Comendant.)

It’s enough water to fill Lake Oroville and more, and it’s flowing out on to lawns and landscapes in cities and communities across the state each year, according to the Department of Water Resources.  But with the state deep in drought and water supplies dwindling, there’s a movement underfoot that’s hoping to change that.

DWR estimates that nearly four million acre-feet of water is used across the state each year to sustain urban residential and commercial landscapes with much of that going towards sustaining the lush lawns we’ve become accustomed to. And with outdoor water use accounting for at least half of all residential water use, the potential for savings is substantial. “That leaves a lot of room for water use efficiency,” said Diana Brooks, Chief of DWR’s Water Use and Efficiency Branch. “This is a place where we need to come together to make water conservation and water use efficiency a priority.”

With drought focusing the public’s attention on dwindling water supplies, there may be no better time to convince Californians to give up their thirsty lawns, and the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a partnership of urban water agencies, public interest organizations and private entities, has been working on a plan to do just that. The Council hopes to redefine a ‘new normal’ for California landscapes that emphasizes using climate appropriate plants to create landscapes that require less water and less maintenance as well as fewer pesticides and fertilizers.

“The homeowner, the landscape contractor, the gardening equipment supplier, and the public agencies all have a role in offering incentives, demonstrations, and messaging,”

The benefits of adopting a ‘new normal’ in urban landscapes has multiple benefits that extend from our homes and far into the watershed. Most people do not readily understand the connection of how the products applied on their landscapes migrates through the urban environment, eventually reaching local waterways and causing a host of water quality problems that impact local waterways, beaches, fish and wildlife – even the Delta.  Addressing contamination in urban waterways from stormwater runoff is one of the priorities for the State Water Resources Control Board, with new stronger regulations expected later this year.

Pesticides in the local waterways has long been recognized as a problem and one that the Department of Pesticide Regulation has been working to address; however, recent regulations designed to reduce the amount of pesticides in urban runoff have had little, if any effect. The key to solving the problem is improving the use of pesticides in urban areas, says Brian Leahy, Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. “We need to start reaching the homeowners and the ‘mow and blow’ guys.”

Leahy acknowledges it is hard to educate 38 million consumers, but the Department is looking at ways to meet that challenge. “We need to look at retailers and figure out how responsible they need to be. We need to look at the landscaping professionals and maintenance workers and make sure they are trained. We need to address language challenges and do more outreach to homeowners as well.”

But Leahy thinks there is a better path in working to reduce or even eliminate the need for so using so many chemicals. “They are trying to grow landscaping material that is really challenging in the climate and growing conditions that we have, so maybe we need to change that.”

 Public opinion surveys have shown that many homeowners remain wary about “water-efficient” landscapes as it often evokes the idea of a dry, parched landscape exemplified by cactus and rocks.

But how do you change the hearts and minds of the public?

Greg Weber, Executive Director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, says the answer isn’t in increased regulations, but instead in an approach that relies on partnerships, incentives and other motivations to move a product or idea beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream. “The homeowner, the landscape contractor, the gardening equipment supplier, and the public agencies all have a role in offering incentives, demonstrations, and messaging,” said Weber. “It takes partnerships to move something like this forward.”

In the upcoming weeks, the Council will host a pair of symposiums that will bring together all stakeholders to brainstorm ideas and define action steps to accelerate the pace of change towards the ‘new normal.’ At the symposiums, scheduled for Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday, May 22, and Citrus Heights on Thursday, May 29, officials from the State Water Board, Department of Water Resources, Department of Pesticide Regulation and CalRecycle will discuss the role of their agencies in bringing about landscaping changes. Watershed groups and landscaping coalitions will discuss successful partnerships and collaborations at the regional and local level, highlighting regional examples of success. Small group discussions will focus on eliciting ideas from participants to identify the challenges, opportunities, partnerships, and specific actions that need to be taken in order to make the change.  Click here for more information on the upcoming symposiums, ‘Achieving a New Normal in California Landscapes.’

“With the symposiums, what we’re trying to do is identify the various pieces of the puzzle that need to partner together to get these early adoptions to become the ‘new normal’ of what a beautiful, sustainable California landscape is,” said Weber.

In the long run, the success of creating a ‘new normal’ will depend on public acceptance, with behavior change being the most challenging and critical aspect. Public opinion surveys have shown that many homeowners remain wary about “water-efficient” landscapes as it often evokes the idea of a dry, parched landscape exemplified by cactus and rocks.  However, California’s Mediterranean climate actually supports a rich diversity of possibilities. “The idea is to improve people’s experience and their standard of living,” said Weber. “They will have a sense of personal satisfaction while helping the environment and sustaining local wildlife, whether its birds, bees, or butterflies.”

“This is meant to be an upgrade, not a compromise,” Weber said.

Ed’s Note: Chris Austin is the publisher of Maven’s Notebook, where this story originally appeared, and a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly. She provides in-depth coverage of California water issues. Maven’s Notebook, a content partner of Capitol Weekly,  can be seen at

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