Sacramento area’s school fields, landscaping likely to go brown this year

The football field at Elk Grove High School is covered in synthetic turf, one of several artificial surfaces in the region, which will not be affected by watering restrictions that are expected to turn many playing fields from green to brown as the drought continues.
The football field at Elk Grove High School is covered in synthetic turf, one of several artificial surfaces in the region, which will not be affected by watering restrictions that are expected to turn many playing fields from green to brown as the drought continues. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento-area schoolyards are expected to become more golden than green as drought restrictions take hold and the weather warms.

Four years of drought and a call last year for a 20 percent water cutback has Sacramento County school districts prepared to make additional reductions. Most districts say they already have reached Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate this month to use 25 percent less water than in 2013, while others are close.

“Quite frankly, from my perspective, it’s scary,” said Rob Pierce, associate superintendent of facilities at Elk Grove Unified. “It’s the fourth year in a row: 2013 was the driest year in the history of California, only to be topped by 2014. I’m surprised we haven’t been cut farther.”

Most Sacramento County school districts reduced water use by fine-tuning irrigation systems, repairing leaking pipes and water lines, adding drought-tolerant plantings and installing low-flow toilets.

The savings are substantial. Each week, elementary schools use 200,000 to 400,000 gallons of water, while secondary schools use 1 million to 2 million gallons, Pierce said. About 25 percent of that water is used indoors; the balance is for irrigation.

“They are green right now,” said Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified, of the district’s parks, playing fields, courtyards and lawn. “I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be a lot closer to golden this year than it ever has before. ... We want our schools to be appealing and we want green spaces for kids to play on, but we have to do it responsibly.”

Keeping playing fields watered will be the first priority of local districts. The fields used by students, recreational teams and residents must be watered at least twice a week to be safe and playable, Pierce said.

“At the rate we are watering, it will keep the plants and the grass alive, but they won’t thrive,” Pierce said. “If it gets worse, I fear ... we will lose some fields. They are assets, expensive capital improvements that we invested in.”

Kim Barnett, executive director of general services for Twin Rivers, figures districts could spend millions of dollars to replace fields if turf dies. “That’s huge when you have 53 sites,” she said.

Playing fields that aren’t watered enough become as hard as concrete, Barnett said. “They can’t play soccer, football or baseball on concrete fields.”

Elk Grove Unified has alerted community sports teams that they may not be able to continue their seasons if water restrictions make the fields unsafe.

“Our fields aren’t in the shape that our community has become accustomed to,” Pierce said. “The natural turf is clearly showing wear and tear.”

Synthetic football fields have helped districts save water and will allow sports to continue at some schools despite the drought. Elk Grove Unified has five artificial playing fields, Twin Rivers four, Folsom Cordova three, and Sacramento City Unified and San Juan each have two.

Keeping the grass alive on 64 campuses in Elk Grove Unified, the region’s largest school district, hasn’t been easy. The district has to work with six water districts, each with different restrictions, such as watering schedules or reduction targets.

The massive size of school campuses also can make it difficult to water all irrigation zones within the time window allotted, especially with students arriving at 7 a.m. and athletics programs scheduled until dark, Pierce said. “The water can’t be turned on until everyone is gone.”

Like most local districts, Elk Grove Unified monitors and controls most of the irrigation at its schools through computerized programs tied to district-run weather stations that calculate such factors as humidity, heat and recent rainfall. A handful of schools are using moisture detectors to determine if a field should get water.

Pierce said the district has met the requirement that it use 25 percent less water than in 2013. Last week, he learned that the district may have to cut water another 10 percent at six schools located in a high-use area of the city.

Folsom, Fair Oaks, Carmichael, parts of Elk Grove and several other Sacramento-area suburbs will be required to use 35 percent less water than in 2013, according to a plan issued last week by state water regulators.

“I can promise you we are going to err on the side of letting things go bad, instead of taking a chance of getting fined,” said Jim Bonovich, director of maintenance and operations at Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

Ornamental plants and lawns at local schools will be the first things to go. The state’s rules could leave districts unable to use potable water to irrigate such landscaping under the governor’s order.

Folsom Cordova Unified has cut back on the watering of shrubs and ornamental plantings, opting instead to direct irrigation toward mature trees. The district says it already has satisfied the 25 percent mandate.

San Juan Unified cut water use by 26 percent last year, said Chris Ralston, grounds supervisor. He is confident the district can meet that goal again this year. District officials haven’t determined how they will reduce water by 35 percent at schools in high-use areas slated for a cut of that size.

County school districts say community members are more aware of water conservation efforts, resulting in fewer complaints about brown grass. Instead, they have been calling to alert districts to water waste.

Many districts have posted signs asking community members to call if they see water waste on campus. San Juan Unified has set up an email account,, and tip line at (916) 597-0670.

“We have an obligation to provide safe school facilities and a safe environment,” said David Burke, director of planning for San Juan Unified. “What we are struggling with is, how do we maintain safe environment and balance it with requirement to save 25 to 35 percent of our water?”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

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