Monday, August 17, 2015

Brown Is The New Green: Living In the Drought of California

Dead lawn in Alhambra, CA
Taking my morning walk early to avoid the unrelenting heat of the past week, I noticed one lawn after another looked like the one shown here (left).

I am sure the entire world knows that California is in the midst of the worst drought in its recorded history. How did this happen?

It wasn't all that long ago that having a lawn that looked like this, lets say as soon as last year, you would get a citation for failing to maintain your property. Now, its a badge of pride. You are conserving water. 

The same was done when a property in another San Gabriel Valley city took out their lawn and used Astro Turf instead. The city was quick to issue a citation about that too. Now, as you can see in this 
Astro Tuff vs. a dead lawn.
photo, many cities are encouraging homeowners to do this exact same thing. It looks good year around, saves using smog producing lawn mowers and all it takes to keep clean is a blower! How nice is that?

Growing up in Oregon, water was rarely an issue. In fact you usually had too much. Still though, dams manage most of the rivers creating electricity and water management. 

The thing that has always amazed me, and I have lived in Southern California since 1970, is how poorly the state has managed its water. Rain water just ran down to the sewers and out to sea. Really? They were all for building huge dams, 100's of miles of aqueducts and other grandiose projects. However, simple things like saving the rainwater that fell on the streets seemed beneath the planners of the Department of Water Resources. The liberal north has been begging the DWR to dismantle the Hetch Hechy dam east of San Francisco, their main source of water. Those people must have found something else to agitate about as not a word has been said about tearing the damn down the past year. 

Evaporation Saving Black Balls
The Sunday Los Angeles Times had a big article on how the state was going to plan for the next drought. I guess there is nothing they can do about it now except having Gov. Brown asking all of us to use 25% less water. He is asking a state that is the most efficient state using water in the union to use even less. It looks like it is working. However, we are already using 25% less water than we did 20 years ago.

Locally, the city reservoirs have been adding black floating balls to literally cover the open water saving millions of gallons of water from evaporating. Black seems like a strange color but as a spokesman said, "we want to save the water, we don't care if its warm or not." Millions have been purchased at a cost of 36¢ each yet are supposed to last 10 years and can be recycled. It will be interesting to see if it works.

A Familiar Site on California's Freeways.
In a region that is naturally more desert than not, the idea of having vast green lawns will have to change. Some homeowners, knowing that they will pay through the nose for water, tore out lawns and planted desert landscaping instead. The idea caught on! The state has had two state sponsored rebates to help pay for the removal of your lawn and replacing it with rocks and desert loving plants.

The Times article talks about DWR's future. There will be more sewage treatment plants, recharge basins and desalination  facilities. They are looking for high efficiency projects in steps rather than grand projects like more dams, aqueducts and such. Steps like reducing thinning overgrown forests something Native
The drought is closer to home that we know!
Americans knew 200 years ago, fixing leaky delivery systems, gathering more data on water usage and encouraging more efficient use of water. Finally they are retooling their flood control systems to capture rain runoff and funnel it to underground storage. The cost of this and other measures will be $500 million but already, they say it is paying off. Locally developed water development is up 50% and imported water down 40%

There was a fascinating broadcast on "60 Minutes" where Leslie Stahl interviewed a water treatment plant manager. He said when they are through with waste water it is purer than what you would get out of your tap. He wolfed down a glass while Stahl after demurring finally drank her water. She had to admit it tasted good and you would never know that awhile ago it came from homes and had who knows what was in it. We could cut water usage down quite a lot using recycled water. It seems to work on the space station!

Agriculture was slow to use more efficient methods.
Agriculture, historically has been the biggest user of water in California. Some of the crops really have no right to be grown here. They have huge water demands that would be better grown where water is more plentiful.

50% of urban water usage currently goes to landscaping ... or did. However, the state and water company rebates and some very talented landscapers have created beautiful yards that actually offer more than a boring old lawn. The challenge is changing the habits and minds of Californians. After all we are a state of transplants. Many come from colder climes yet for half of the year they have rain and flowers and the time to mow their yards. Having the
Drought tolerant sustainable yard
greenest yard is a badge of honor. As New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and now California have discovered, this vision wasted untold amounts of water and wasn't sustainable. This drought probably wouldn't have been as bad if many of the proposed policies were already in place. Americans are reactive and rarely look far ahead for potential problems. The DWR says it has learned its lesson and is planning for the next 100 years. With a forecast of 50 million Californians in the near future, they better be. As we have discovered there is only so much water to go around.

The irony is that there has been more rain storms in Southern California this summer than in recent memory, certainly since the 70's. Where did the water go? Storm drains that kiss the Pacific Ocean.

Oroville Lake in Northern California
As you can see above, yards do not have to be gravel and a spindly cactus. Many of the best are
beautiful and offer far more interest than a green lawn with the added demand of less care and maintenance. Its win-win for all concerned.

However, as you can see on the right, not following the new proposals will make lakes like that created behind Oroville Dam look like this. Every one. It is shocking but when you realize that 50% of the water was sucked to water lawns and who knows what else, something has to be done. There are rumors we will have an El NiƱo of epic proportions. Will we? The experts say that even if we do, it will not end the drought. It is time to maximize the collection of those rains and while it may not end the drought, it can certainly give us a lot of water that in past years would have flowed to the sea.

If you think California is alone, think again. I read a book several years ago that said wars would be fought over, guess what? Water, yes, water. With 7 billion people on earth, clean drinkable water might well be more valuable than gold. It is showing us the effects here first. We can only hope the lessons we learn here can be used around the world. You would think with 70% of this world covered in water there would be enough. The issue, and one that could well be fought over, is there isn't enough palatable water, at least yet. California can yet again lead the way!

Thank you for visiting my blog. Please read a wide selection of earlier blogs that address the issues of design in all its myriad forms.

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