Approximately half of all residential water use in California is for outdoor purposes—and, of that, the majority is used for watering lawns and gardens. In total approximately 1,300,000 acre feet of water is used for watering lawns and gardens; enough to cover the entire County of Los Angeles with six inches of water. Producing, transporting, treating and delivering that water requires a significant amount of energy. In a state that had below-normal precipitation in 8 of the last 10 years (including a 3-year drought), can using such significant amounts of water (and related energy) in this manner be considered sustainable?
New technologies and approaches allow for greater efficiency of outdoor irrigation. Options range from high efficiency nozzle replacements on sprinklers to weather sensing irrigation controllers. Meanwhile, some have suggested outright replacement of grass with synthetic turf. However, one option stands out for not only reducing water use but also adding to the property values of California homes, while at the same time reducing ocean pollution: ocean friendly gardens (sometimes referred to as xeriscaping).
Ocean friendly gardens utilize drought resistant California native plants in plots that are designed to capture home stormwater runoff. They require little, if any, irrigation. Water is supplied to the gardens by rerouting downspouts that would normally send rainwater to the streets or sewer systems—water that would otherwise wash pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides and oil into California’s rivers and ultimately pollute our oceans and beaches. Ocean friendly gardens are specially designed to retain the influx of storm water and achieve near-zero runoff. Contours and dry creek beds built into the landscapes retain water, allowing it to percolate into the ground.
An increased number of these gardens and landscapes would help alleviate water supply stresses and flash flooding problems in Southern California. A significant portion of Southern California’s water supply, imported from 450 miles away at a very high cost, has been under stress in recent years due to shortages. Meanwhile, in many Southern California urban areas, elaborate storm drain systems are used to drain any rainfall cities do receive into the ocean. During large storms, these drainage systems can be overwhelmed, resulting in flash floods. During the heavy rains this past December, for example, the volume of water washed off of Los Angeles’ streets and into the ocean was enough to supply water to 130,000 Southern California homes for a year. Using this local source would help alleviate local water supply problems while decreasing the amount of pollution washed out to sea.
While ocean friendly gardens are a great benefit to homeowners, water utilities, and the environment, they are still few in number. Many water agencies support ocean friendly gardening, offering multiple resources to their customers. These include “Cash for Grass” incentives as well as demonstration gardens. However, barriers to adoption still exist, including a lack of awareness of ocean friendly garden design, a lack of understanding of the significant amount of water currently used to irrigate lawns and gardens, and a lack of understanding of the cost of current watering practices (ranging from $200 to $400 per year for a typical house). Innovative community outreach programs are needed to shift California’s outdoor landscaping paradigm.
Organizations like the Green Gardens Group – which is currently partnering with the Surfrider Foundation – have facilitated hands on workshops for local communities to spread the word about ocean friendly gardening in Southern California. These workshops are typically held at local homes where volunteers (usually friends and neighbors of the homeowner) are taught how to evaluate the home’s existing landscape and convert it into an ocean friendly garden. The volunteers then return to the same location one month later to construct the newly designed garden. The result: a garden that not only reduces water use by 60-80%, but also educates and empowers the local community. Volunteers leave with the knowledge necessary to design and build their own ocean friendly gardens.
This community involvement model is not new. The Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) organizes “barn raisings” in Cambridge, MA where a similar approach is used to teach homeowners how to weatherize their homes in order to make them more energy efficient.
These gatherings are more like a block party than a lecture or work camp. Food and drink are aplenty, neighbors meet and help each other, and new friendships are formed. Often when the work is complete, there is live music to entertain the volunteers. If saving water and energy is as easy as inviting your friends and neighbors over for a party, why aren’t we all doing it?