Hasta la vista, lawns

Local landscaping experts talk sustainable outdoor spaces amid water restrictionsstrictions

Gary Wheeler believes the new water restrictions are causing Chico residents to rethink their irrigation systems.

Gary Wheeler believes the new water restrictions are causing Chico residents to rethink their irrigation systems.

PHOTO by Ken Smith

When landscaper Thomas Foster visits clients these days, the first thing they talk about is drought-tolerant landscaping, including what to do in place of grass.

“It’s the drought that’s driving this return to something besides lawns,” said Foster, owner of Aqua-Terra Landscapes. “Returning to something that we should’ve been doing all along, which is sustainable landscapes.”

Foster said he expects more people to start asking how to conserve water, especially with the new restrictions from California Water Service Co. that began on Monday, June 1. These new rules, for both residential and commercial customers of Cal Water, come after the State Water Resources Control Board mandated a steep reduction of water use for the Chico district.

The policy was detailed at a May 27 question-and-answer session at Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union. There, Cal Water officials explained how customers would have a monthly budget that calls for a 32 percent reduction from their monthly water usage in 2013. Those who exceed that budget will be charged a fee of $3.13 for every additional 100 cubic feet used. The measurement, marked as CCF (century cubic feet) on the water bill, is equivalent to 748 gallons.

A bright spot among talks about increased fees is that customers will be able to “bank” unused water from one month to the next, meaning they may exceed their usage by that amount of water without facing the extra charge. The forum also cleared up a lot of confusion. For example, those who were not Cal Water customers in 2013 were informed that their monthly budget will be based on the average monthly consumption by households in the district. Officials also noted that customers can file an appeal with Cal Water to have their allotments increased.

Cal Water also went over the implementation of restrictions on specific uses: Watering that causes runoff is prohibited, as is washing driveways and sidewalks, watering landscapes within 48 hours of significant rainfall and using nozzles that don’t shut off while washing vehicles.

And then there’s the restriction on lawns. Chicoans can water them only three days a week. But based on the method by which many water customers are currently irrigating landscaping, there’s a lot of room to meet the conservation restrictions.

“This is what we’ve needed to do for some time,” said Gary Wheeler, a branch manager at Ewing Irrigation in Chico. “People haven’t been taking water seriously. Now there’s a lot more awareness and people are more conscious of what’s going on and how they are using their water.”

Wheeler said many existing sprinkler systems were installed 20 to 30 years ago and include water-guzzling spray nozzles that often cause overwatering. Steps people can take to reduce lawn irrigation, he said, include using high-efficiency nozzles, drip irrigation and smart controllers.

“We’ve got people’s attention because they’re going to get hit in the pocketbook,” Wheeler said. “They’re really going to have an eye opener when July rolls around and they see their bill for June and they have to pay that drought surcharge.”

Cal Water has a number of programs in place to help customers conserve, including free sprinkler nozzles and rebates on smart irrigation controllers and high-efficiency toilets and washers. A new program, announced alongside the water restrictions, is a turf replacement rebate that will provide a $1 refund per square foot of lawn removed and replaced with low-water-use landscaping.

Because of the drought and water-use restrictions, Aqua-Terra’s Foster sees a shift from the common practice of covering property with grass to what is being called the “new California aesthetic.”

“People can’t imagine a property without some sort of lawn,” he said. “The idea with the new California aesthetic would be to break that paradigm and do things that are more sustainable and drought-tolerant. And they’re quite beautiful; in fact they’re way more interesting than a lawn.”

The look, Foster said, does not have to sacrifice beauty. People can still have well-designed landscapes that include pathways, dry creeks, rock work, butterfly and bird gardens, vegetable gardens and garden art.

Foster said he believes the new water restrictions are necessary and people need to rethink how much water they pour onto their landscapes.

“We can’t all have these giant lawns anymore,” he said. “We just can’t afford it. We don’t have the water. It’s not there.”