Back-Seat Driver

Will freeway oleander survive the drought?

For decades, billowing rows of oleander bushes have stood duty on California freeways. Will they survive this summer, possibly the most parched season in modern history?

Caltrans officials recently announced they intend to cut water use, mainly plant irrigation, by 50 percent. But that decision won’t directly affect the oleander because there is no irrigation in most freeway medians anyway. Oleander is largely drought-tolerant, sopping up enough winter rain to survive amid the exhaust and swirling dust of hot August days.

Drought, in fact, is not oleander’s greatest threat in California. For two decades, oleander bushes have been dying by the thousands along Southern California freeways, attacked by a bacteria often carried by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect that has made its way north.

University of California Integrated Pest Management officials offer this warning: “While the disease has not yet been recorded north of Santa Barbara County, it is believed that it could spread north through California’s Central Valley and along the coast where the glassy-winged sharpshooter is established. Oleanders affected by this disease decline and then die, usually within three to five years of the first symptoms. There is no known cure.”

California freeway and roadway medians will show the signs of drought this summer. Call it the Browning of California roads. Gov. Jerry Brown issued an order last week that “ornamental turf” – basically grass – in medians cannot be watered unless non-potable water is used.

In Sacramento, that brings up the question of whether the wide grassy areas along T Street in the Elmhurst neighborhood are actually medians, and if that means the city can’t water the grass there. City officials left that hanging this week, saying they plan to discuss that in the next few weeks. The Brown administration has made it clear that although it doesn’t want water wasted on unused grass, it definitely wants cities to water trees.

Caltrans, meanwhile, has spent $47 million to install smart sprinklers that adjust to weather conditions and soil moisture, and last week got $28 million in emergency funds to add more smart sprinklers as part of its effort to cut water usage in half. Caltrans officials invite drivers to call if they see water waste along highways. Drivers can click a “Be A Water Watcher” icon on the website.

Ironically, you may see some new planting on freeways. In a recent memo, Caltrans said it will allow planting of “essential landscaping” for things like erosion control if the plants are drought-tolerant, the irrigation system efficient and watering occurs only temporarily to get the plants started.

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