California’s Drought-Ridden Communities Look to Add Mulch, Remove Lawns - CivicWell

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California’s Drought-Ridden Communities Look to Add Mulch, Remove Lawns

Livable Places Update


February 28, 2015

California is in the midst of an extended “mega-drought.” 2013 was one of the driest years on record in the state, and this January – usually among the wettest months in a calendar year – will likely have been one of the driest Januaries on historical record.

With the precipitous drop in reservoir levels, Governor Jerry Brown recently declared a statewide drought emergency, calling this “perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago.”

The declaration calls for the Department of Water Resources to implement a statewide conservation campaign that encourages residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20%.

Achieving a 20% reduction for the average California household would mean using 72 fewer gallons a day (from an average daily use of 360 gallons). To put that in perspective, the typical office water cooler holds five gallons, or about 1.4% of the daily average household use.

Landscaping and other outdoor uses make up just over half (53%) of the average residential water use. To help achieve sustainable reductions in these outdoor water uses, communities across the state have devised a variety of practical programs, from free mulch to turf replacement.

Read more about water consumption and reduction strategies

Petaluma Embraces “Mulch Madness”

The City of Petaluma is offering to deliver free mulch and compost to residents through a program called Mulch Madness. Residents can sign up in mid-March (just as the NCAA basketball tourney revs up) for deliveries from mid-April to October. Far from being “mad,” the free mulch program is an important part of a sensible strategy for conserving water in their community.

According to the Pacific Institute mulching can reduce water use by 20%. It’s easy to confirm this by simply looking under a layer of wood chips and leaves several weeks after rainfall has ceased. The dirt underneath the mulch will still be damp due to reduced evaporation and improved water infiltration.

Mulch may consist of wood chips as well as fallen leaves, grass clippings or compost. After 12 to 18 months, this material becomes fine-grained compost that can be worked into the soil.

What Other Communities Are Doing with Mulch

Every year, the City of Long Beach accumulates about 12,000 tons of green waste from standard tree trimming maintenance. They dump 6,000 tons of this mulch on vacant, City-owned land. Anyone is free to come and pick it up. The City also offers free delivery of 600 tons of mulch to home and apartment owners who call and order it, on a first-come, first-served basis.

The City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation is placing the City’s green-waste mulch in 12 different locations throughout the city. Anyone is free to bring shovels and containers and carry off as much as they need.

In Davis, the Village Home Owners Association has recently begun to grind wood from downed trees to make wood chips. Village gardeners add dead leaves and grass clippings to the wood chips and leave the piles of rich mulch in community greenbelts and vegetable gardens distributed throughout the neighborhood. Magically, mulch now covers most of the exposed soils around homes in the neighborhood as residents, concerned about water conservation and escalating water rates, are picking up the product and distributing it generously on their own yards. The overall effect is quite attractive.

The Many Benefits of Mulch

Although the increased use of mulch is conserving water in their community, the City of Long Beach initially began their mulch program to reduce the amount of green waste trucked to a landfill every year. But there are even more benefits to the use of mulch, including weed reduction, improved soil structure and beautification.

As the mulch breaks down, it also adds nutrients to the soil, resulting in healthier plants. Mulch also moderates soil temperature by several degrees, keeping soils warmer in winter and cooler in summer. The enriched soil and increased water retention in turn encourages plants to send their roots further down into the soil, which increases the porosity of the soil and reduces runoff.

Lastly, mulch conserves water, which reduces the energy required to pump water and that, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Remove Turf, Conserve Water

Along with delivering mulch, Petaluma offers another free water conservation service to their residents – the removal of lawns.

A typical 1,000 square-foot area of turf in Petaluma uses more than 25,000 gallons of water annually.

To reduce this source of water consumption, the city offers a “Water Wise House Call” to help home and apartment owners convert their turf into a low water use garden, vegetable garden or wood forest. A trained water-conservation professional will measure the turf area and determine the amount of supplies needed along with instructions on how to install the new equipment. Drip-irrigation conversion kits and universal conversion kits are provided free of charge.

For those unable to take out the turf and install the equipment themselves and unable to afford to pay someone else to do it for them, the City offers free labor provided by local volunteer groups.

Because turf is the most water-consuming feature of the typical California landscape, the number of cities and counties paying people to remove their lawns has been growing throughout California.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently urged the LA Department of Water and Power to increase its rebate for replacing lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping from $3.00 to $3.75 a square foot.

“Conserving water through DWP rebate programs is not only better for the environment,” Garcetti said, “it’s cheaper for ratepayers, costing 30% less than buying expensive water from outside our city.”

The City of Anaheim also has a generous program, paying $3 a square foot for turf removal. Several other communities currently offer $2.00 a square foot for removing a lawn, including Pasadena, Glendora, Escondido and Orange.

Check out the Native Again Landscape LLC website for a partial list of more than 35 other cities with similar turf removal programs.

City Actions Can Have Big Impacts on Water, Energy and Pollution

As water becomes more precious and expensive, communities are devising even more strategies for conserving water.

Water conservation programs implemented in specified areas of Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area could provide 74.6 billion to 132 billion gallons (229,000 to 405,000 acre-feet) of water per year by 2030; that’s enough water for 600,000 people, or roughly the population of Fresno! According to research by the Natural Resources Defense Council, this water savings would correspond to an annual electricity savings of 573 million to 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours (roughly enough power for 100,000 to 200,000 people for a year), and a reduction of 250,500-535,500 metric tons of CO2; the equivalent of taking between 50,000 to 100,000 cars off the road each year.

Even today, the Pacific Institute calculates California residents are using almost 35% more water than they need. In light of this, how can we afford not to follow the lead of these California communities?

For more about what local governments can do to optimize water resources, refer to the CivicWell’s Ahwahnee Water Principles guidebook.