Dead sycamores in Land Park stump residents, arborists

The deaths of sycamores worries 17th Street residents in Land Park. Some say drilling to install water meters in 2014 may have killed the trees – an idea the city disputes.
The deaths of sycamores worries 17th Street residents in Land Park. Some say drilling to install water meters in 2014 may have killed the trees – an idea the city disputes. toide@sacbee.com

Vincent Francella moved from West Sacramento to Land Park drawn by his love for the area’s signature sycamore trees.

Two of those sycamores – 60-year-old specimens near Francella’s house in the 2600 block of 17th Street – have since died while a third tree is expected to perish within the next year. The causes of those deaths remain a mystery to both residents and arborists. At least one other neighbor has also reported a dead tree in his front yard.

That mystery has brought forth conflicting explanations from residents and city officials, and sparked worries about spreading tree disease on the neighborhood’s famously leafy streets.

Tim Dailey, an arborist for Titan Tree Service and a former arborist for the city of Sacramento, examined the trees in May. Francella and his neighbors were concerned about branches possibly falling on their homes from the dead trees.

Dailey took samples from the bark for lab tests, but scientists have been unable to draw a live culture from the dead bark. Dailey plans to take another sample from the tree roots, which may still have living cells.

“To be honest, I’m not the only arborist that’s looked at this; everybody is stumped,” Dailey said. “We don’t know what happened. We truly don’t.”

Francella and Rick Garcia, who lives two houses down and also has a dead tree in his front yard, believe the city’s installation of water meters in the neighborhood two years ago is the most likely cause. Garcia recounted seeing workers removing and drilling through the roots of the tree in front of his house while digging trenches.

“I’m not an arborist so I can’t say it’s definitely the cause, but I do think that it is the most likely cause,” said Garcia, who has lived in Land Park since 1992. “If I’d done the same thing, I probably would have killed them too.”

Dailey and the city were quick to dispute any suggestion that the water project is to blame.

Chris Powell, a construction supervisor for the water meter project, said the city has strict guidelines for dealing with trees when installing water meters. Workers must use a drill roughly 2 inches in diameter to clear the path for pipes after digging a trench, and if they find any tree roots more than 2 inches in diameter, they have to stop until an arborist can examine the roots and determine whether it’s OK to continue.

Rhea Serran, a spokeswoman for the city’s water department, said out of nearly 65,000 water meter installations, the city received only two claims for dead trees caused by the installations.

“The odds of us hitting enough roots to kill an entire tree is slim to none,” Powell said. “To flat-out just kill a tree by drilling a hole, my opinion is that it’s very challenging to qualify that as the reason why a tree died.”

Dailey said that even if the water meters did hit the majority of the roots, the trees would not have survived for that long.

“The timelines don’t add up,” Dailey said. “It was done back in 2014, the trees were in full bloom in 2015. The trenching was done, but the trees were fine for all of that summer.”

Ray Tretheway, the executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, said sycamores are hardy and don’t succumb to diseases easily. He said California’s drought has stressed all the trees in the area and could have contributed to their deaths.

“The cumulative effect of those three years of drought could be a lead cause for the dying trees,” he said. “The trees were already under stress and were probably already failing. Most of the susceptible trees, we would find out if they were really dead this spring.”

The priority for residents and Dailey alike is to save any other trees that could be at risk.

“We’re just trying to rule things out because we don’t want it to spread to any other trees,” Dailey said.

Thomas Oide: 916-321-1009, @thomasoide