Water & Drought

Drought turning green street medians to brown

Brian Snow drinks from a fountain during his lunch time rum surround by brown grass at State Capitol Thursday July 3, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, said lawns at the Capitol are being allowed to die to show residents the seriousness of the drought and to set an example of thrifty water use.
Brian Snow drinks from a fountain during his lunch time rum surround by brown grass at State Capitol Thursday July 3, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, said lawns at the Capitol are being allowed to die to show residents the seriousness of the drought and to set an example of thrifty water use. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Grassy center medians on boulevards across the state, including Sacramento’s Capitol Mall corridor, are likely to go brown this summer under Gov. Jerry Brown’s new emergency water restrictions.

Faced with a four-year drought, the governor last week ordered first-time mandatory state water-usage reductions, targeting a 25 percent cut through early next year. Those reductions include a ban on irrigating ornamental turf on medians in public streets unless it is done with nondrinking or reclaimed water.

The governor’s emergency order likely will force many cities and counties to simply turn off street-median watering systems. That includes Sacramento, which controls perhaps the most symbolic swath of grass in the state – the Capitol Mall median stretching from near Tower Bridge to the front of the state Capitol building.

The city irrigates that corridor and other city street medians with potable water and does not have any current source of nondrinking water to use as a substitute.

Terrance Davis, Sacramento’s drought program manager, said the city has not yet put together a plan on how it will respond to the governor’s directive. But he noted that the mall’s grass could be considered as not merely “ornamental” or decorative. “Capitol Mall does have some other functions,” he said. “It is used as a gathering place.”

Sacramento’s downtown City Council representative, Steve Hansen, said the Capitol Mall medians absolutely should go brown.

“I know is sounds cheesy, but brown is the new gold,” said Hansen, who said he hasn’t turned on sprinklers in his yard since October 2013. Capitol Mall is “really nonessential, nonactivated space. We need to send a message we are going to save every drop we can, especially when it comes to changing our culture when it comes to green grass.”

Brown, in his executive order, also directed state water officials to impose restrictions on commercial, industrial and institutional property water usage, and directed state officials to work with local suppliers on water-use surcharges, fees and penalties to “maximize water conservation.”

The directives come amid a historic span of low rain and snowfall years. As of this week, the state snowpack stood at only 6 percent of its historical average for early April, the lowest ever registered. It would take a number of good rain years to bring reservoirs back to normal levels. Brown has said he sees the state’s water crisis as an ongoing new reality, rather than an anomaly.

Administration officials said the street median requirement to use non-potable water refers only to grass medians, not to shrubs or trees. In fact, state officials say they want local public agencies to take steps to try to keep trees on center medians alive.

“Trees should be protected,” said Frances Spivy-Weber, vice chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board. “Trees mitigate the heat effect of an area. So they have a useful purpose. The grass is just visual. It doesn’t have that useful purpose.”

Spivy-Weber said the governor’s order – which lasts for 270 days, with the potential for extensions – also does not require non-potable water for grass buffer zones alongside sidewalks. “We have not gone there yet,” she said. “That is something we will be needing to look at in the future.”

Most cities and counties in the region report they have limited access to reclaimed water. As a result, most say they will turn off grass median sprinklers.

Dan York of the Sacramento Suburban Water District said his agency likely will recommend to the county of Sacramento that it let its medians on Watt Avenue and a few other streets go brown. Elk Grove turned off its median sprinklers when this week’s rain hit and does not plan to turn them back on, except where there are trees. “Irrigation systems on these medians will be modified so only the trees will receive water two days per week,” city spokeswoman Kristyn Nelson said.

Folsom City Manager Evert Palmer said the governor’s emergency order reflects an ongoing evolution in California rather than a dramatic change. Many local agencies, including in Roseville and Folsom, have been replacing unused grass in public areas in recent years. Frequent median alternatives include drought-tolerant plantings, rocks, pressed concrete bricks or mulch.

“Over a course of years, we have been adapting our public landscapes to be more drought tolerant,” Palmer said. The evolving look will be more natural, he said, “an interface between residents and the natural environment of the region.”

Sacramento official Davis said the city will consider replacing some median grass with other materials that don’t require water, or as much water. He said it is too early to talk about any details. “We aren’t there yet on a plan. That will be part of the discussion.”

Doug Mull, a vice president in Northern California for the Lewis Group of Companies, a developer, said the governor’s order reflects a bigger trend in new growth, and new subdivisions, with designers and builders moving away from public and private grassy areas. Streets will be smaller and won’t have grass medians. Residential lots will be smaller too. Both changes could help builders financially by reducing street costs and creating more space for housing units.

“We adapt,” Mull said. “There are going to be some planning and lifestyle changes that are probably going to be positive.”

These include smaller front yards with less grass and more hardscaped areas, shaded by trees and trellises, he said. “We are having those conversations right now, about private open spaces, medians, front lawns. The trend is that people will begin to live in their front yard over time. That trend will accelerate now.”

The governor’s order notably instructs the Department of Water Resources to lead a statewide initiative to replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought-tolerant landscapes.

Spivy-Weber of the state Water Resources Control Board said her board will distribute draft guidelines regarding the governor’s mandates as early as this week for public comment, then likely will vote on final regulations in May. The regulations would go into effect at the beginning of June.

“Our theory is there is no silver bullet” in dealing with the drought, she said. “We will need to do many different things to achieve this reduction.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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