New rules dramatically limiting grass around new homes. No fines for homeowners who let lawns go brown. A proposal to lift Sacramento’s ban on synthetic turf in front yards.
It has taken years, but California is wrapping its mind around drought as a potentially permanent companion. Changing laws are forcing our hand in large and small ways. Our watering habits, our surroundings, perhaps even our ideas about what makes a landscape gracious – all are about to be adjusted.
Those who haven’t done it already need to start preparing themselves.
As the governor so aptly warned back in April, “the idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.” Even if our wishful thinking manages to come true and an El Niño system gives us a reprieve this winter, scientists say it could take years of average or above-average rainfall for anything like normalcy to return.
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And even that won’t solve the gathering water crisis in the West as a region. So we have a new normal. And it is brown.
Let us pause here for a moment of mourning. More than most states, California has cherished its greenery.
The postwar suburban lawns, the emerald golf courses, the leafy streets of our capital city, the fields of the Central Valley, soaked by great aqueducts – these have been status symbols, proof that we could conjure life itself, even from deserts.
Now, because of regulations approved last week by the California Water Commission, drought-tolerant plants will dominate the landscape around new housing and business developments. And thanks to a new state law, there will be no fines from homeowners’ associations or other entities if the front yard turns straw-colored due to minimal watering.
This is a blow for those of us who grew up knowing the feel of wet grass under bare feet.
But there’s hope. Just ask San Diego, where, incredibly, the water authority has water to store this year, despite soaring temperatures, almost no groundwater, and less than half of Sacramento’s average annual rainfall.
Its secret? Nearly a quarter-century’s worth of drought preparation and adjustment, dating to a 1991 water shortage that left the county vowing to end its reliance on imported water. Since then, per capita water use in the San Diego County Water Authority has dropped 31 percent, and it is already below its state-mandated 2020 goal.
District officials credit an all-of-the-above strategy, ranging from big-ticket investments in new water sources, like gray water and desalination, to infrastructure improvements and tough standards for irrigation, low-flow toilets, water meters and general conservation. Many of those conservation standards, by the way, have been the models for recent state laws.
So we have seen the future, and if we’re smart, it could look a lot like San Diego. We can think of worse reasons to stop watering the lawn.