After years of recurring drought conditions and decades of precariousness relying on imported water, Southern California has imposed severe restrictions on residents’ use of water. Within a few weeks, residents will only be able to water their gardens once a week. Lush lawns and lush flower gardens, your days might be numbered.
This is probably just the beginning. Climate change is wreaking havoc on water systems around the world, and drought conditions are forecast for the western United States through at least 2030. What’s happening in Southern California now could soon be seen across much of the West. Irrigation restrictions could dramatically change the face of nature.
The new rules were implemented by Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which serves water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. A water shortage emergency was declared in late April, prohibiting residents from watering more than once a week from June 1. Individual water boards in the district that exceed the limits will face fines that will likely leak through to individual water users. If conditions worsen, the district could enforce even tougher restrictions, including a blanket ban on all non-essential outdoor irrigation. With an estimated 30% of a family’s daily water use going for outdoor watering, reducing watering can be a powerful way to conserve water.
The severe watering restrictions and heat of Southern California’s summer could see gardens across the region turning to dust. But according to landscape architects and designers working in the region, this could be an opportunity to finally do away with outdated ideas about suburban landscaping. Imposing irrigation restrictions can accelerate current trends in landscaping, from plant availability to new irrigation methods.
Goodbye Frond. Hello cacti.
Despite annual rainfall, which is often measured in single-digit inches, the greater Los Angeles area is still known for its lush gardens and expansive grass fields. Thirsty trees like eucalyptus and ficus have been planted with devotion over the past few decades, and though the area’s environmentally conscious folk have opted for succulents and cacti, verdant lawns dot the front yards of communities from Beverly Hills to Pasadena to Laguna Beach.
Landscape architect Mia Lehrer says the new restrictions could help more people see the beauty of drought-tolerant plants. Her company, Studio MLA, has designed several parks in the LA area that include species that can withstand low-water conditions, including a garden in front of the LA Museum of Natural History and a hillside park overlooking downtown. Rather than vibrant but non-native flowers and jungle-like fronds, these spaces use native grasses like buckwheat, shrubs like manzanita, and trees like single-leaf pine that can survive dry spells. Teacher says some parts of the gardens outside the museum, planted in 2013, only need watering every two weeks. “For many of us in Southern California over the last 10 years, how much water we use and what plant materials we use in projects have been at the heart of design,” says Lehrer.
But circumventing the water shortage isn’t as easy as getting rid of all the thirsty plants and replacing them with species that are better adapted to arid conditions. Many species were not even available from commercial nurseries. “It was difficult to find the plant material,” says Lehrer of those early years. “Sometimes you had to grow them yourself when building them.”
But now a wider variety of plants are sold by nurseries, and both designers and hobby landscapers can more easily include them in their planting plans. after teacher. She expects that the new watering restrictions will make designers and clients more open to using this extensive range of plants in new projects. “There are so many tree species that have come onto the market,” says Lehrer, naming drought-tolerant trees like oaks and sycamores.
Old water is new again
John Lesak, director of architecture and design firm Page & Turnbull, says there’s a growing understanding among designers that drought-tolerant design is the way forward for Southern California. But regulatory and permitting issues have sometimes hampered the implementation of these designs. He points to water-saving techniques such as water use, such as collecting and storing rainwater, and gray water reuse, in which non-toxic wastewater from kitchen sinks and showers is discharged into the landscape instead of into the sewers. Some authorities are quicker to embrace these concepts than others, particularly those concerned about people and pets coming into contact with potentially unclean water. “While the builders might want to do this, the health experts say, hold on a second,” says Lesak.
Those rules are beginning to bend. Lesak’s company is working on a number of projects that explore new ways of landscaping without traditional irrigation. One of these is a pilot project for the San Gabriel Valley Water Conservation Authority, exploring new ways to capture and reuse water locally. A demonstration intended to demonstrate new approaches to landscape design, the project includes multiple wetland-like bio-troughs that can capture and absorb rainwater during the region’s infrequent rains, as well as large underground cisterns that can store recycled water for irrigation – Approaches that are possible are difficult for homeowners to obtain a permit. The ideas tested here could eventually find their way into residential courtyards and public parks.
A new design consideration that emerges is that these approaches require a bit more space, as opposed to a simple grid of underground irrigation lines and sprinkler heads. This can be a challenge in a region like Southern California, where rain is infrequent and any storage system must be able to withstand a one-time flood for months. According to Lesak, new projects need to be designed in larger areas where, for example, cisterns can be buried. But he says there are a number of tools to enable on-site capture and reuse of water. “There’s a lot of exciting water storage technology out there, ranging from galvanized steel tanks to rubberized bladders that you can store in a crawl space,” he says.
More flexible regulations
Amid regular drought conditions, city officials are becoming more flexible when it comes to approving new regulations that require drought-tolerant crops, incentivizing the removal of lawn grass, and even reusing water from sinks and showers.
In Los Angeles County, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued new guidelines for using “alternative” water sources, including the non-potable gray water from kitchen sinks and laundry machines. “It clearly highlighted how to safely approach water reuse and encouraged owners to address stormwater, greywater, stormwater and recycled water without getting bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy,” says Kathleen Hetrick, sustainability engineer at Buro Happold, an engineering firm with an office in LA “It gave everyone in the industry more confidence that water reuse is a positive for a project and not a headache.”
Other governments across California are making similar regulatory improvements. According to Hetrick, cities like San Francisco are even exploring on-site recycling of so-called blackwater, including what is flushed down the toilet, so that it can be used for irrigation. The drought and future water shortages are forcing cities to think more broadly about where the water can come from. “There are so many resources to create the policy that we need,” says Hetrick.
The ongoing changes have been building up over years, and the imposition of the region’s weekly watering restrictions could be a loud wake-up call to finally implement them on a larger scale. While that doesn’t mean the widespread disappearance of the classic front yard, in a water-conscious future they will almost certainly be the exception rather than the rule.