With water rationing imminent, Westsiders get serious about conservation

By John Conroy

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling  Facility cleans and repurposes wastewater for irrigation and other uses. Photo by Ted Soqui.

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling
Facility cleans and repurposes wastewater for irrigation and other uses. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Within an hour of Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 1 announcement mandating a 25% cutback in water use statewide, Marilee Kuhlman’s phone began to rain calls. The owner of an environmentally conscious landscape design business, Kuhlman said she typically receives three to four serious inquiries a week. After Brown’s speech, she got at least six calls in the first hour.

“It was crazy. I think it was something that just pushed everybody over the edge,” said Kuhlman, who launched Comfort Zones Garden Design about 10 years ago. A dire drought report that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab issued in December 2014 had already set off “a manic phase that people got into,” she said. After the governor’s 25% cutback pronouncement, “everybody just [thought], ‘okay, this is real.’”

Kuhlman, who specializes in environmentally sustainable landscaping and has a project currently underway in Westchester, makes a point of weeding out potential clients who don’t meet the criteria: “If I go out on a call and someone says, ‘I’d like to keep my hydrangea and I’d like a little artificial turf,’ I say, ‘call someone else.’”

It appears that more Westside residents are coming to understand the realities of the state’s unprecedented four-year drought, and they don’t include hydrangea.

A landscaping workshop scheduled for May 9 at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library was completely booked just one week after the Green Committee of the Mar Vista Community Council posted the announcement on March 31, said Sherri Akers, a committee co-chair. Funded by L.A. Dept. of Water and Power, the workshop is one of 240 classes taught annually by the Green Gardens Group (G3), according to G3 CEO Pamela Berstler. Around 50 people have signed up for the library workshop and others are on a waiting list, Akers said.

The workshop is the first one sponsored by DWP on the Westside, said Berstler. G3 has taught six or seven classes a year on the Westside for other water agencies, she said, pointing out that DWP usually holds classes in downtown Los Angeles or in the Valley. Berstler said a spike in interest may prompt DWP to sponsor more Westside workshops.

At the weekly farmers market in Mar Vista, Akers is seeing a steady flow of visitors to the Mar Vista Community Council’s Green Tent each Sunday as well as growing community involvement in the council’s annual Water Wise Expo.

“Water hasn’t been our sole focus, but it’s definitely been at the top of our list,” Akers said of the committee’s community outreach efforts.

The centerpiece of those efforts is the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, which the Mar Vista Community Council will host for the seventh consecutive year on April 25. The curated neighborhood walking tour, which is designed to promote environmental sustainability, features gardens with native California plants, water-saving systems and other green elements. The garden tour was established in order to inspire residents to remove their lawns and recognize “it wasn’t a hardship” to do so, Akers said.

Kuhlman has designed several gardens that have been featured on the tour, she noted.

Next weekend’s Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase follows the latest cold splash of reality of water rationing discussions this week by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves water agencies in six counties — including DWP and the city of Santa Monica — with water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California’s snowpack. On Tuesday, MWD board members discussed a 15% cutback of water deliveries, beginning July 1.

Gov. Brown issued his recent executive order while standing in a grassy Sierra Nevada meadow where five feet of snow should have been. At 5% of the historical average, the snowpack was the lowest ever recorded.

Doubly problematic, the announcement was accompanied by the news that statewide water use had declined only 2.8% compared to a baseline level recorded in February 2013. Brown’s earlier directive for a voluntary 20% reduction starting in January 2014 was met with a reduction of approximately 8% in January 2015.

Brown’s order directs the State Water Resources Control Board to oversee mandatory water cutbacks that will save approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water — approximately the current capacity of Lake Oroville — over the next nine months, according to the governor’s office.

Water-saving actions will include working with local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, helping create a statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances, and requiring large landscapes such as golf courses to cut water use significantly.

On the same day of Brown’s announcement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a directive to reduce the city’s per capita consumption of potable water by 20% by 2017. He also targeted a 50% reduction in DWP’s purchase of imported water by 2024.

Garcetti said that the city has reduced daily water use by seven gallons per capita since October 2014, putting it on track to meet the 2017 goal. Included is a plan to increase rebates for removing residential turf to $3.75 per square foot.

Santa Monica “took action very early” with “a pretty aggressive plan” to cut water use, said Dean Kubani, the city’s manager of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

Santa Monica’s goal is 20% citywide reduction in water use by the end of 2016 through a program of incentives and rebates, Kubani said. The city’s Sustainable Landscape Rebate program offers reimbursements of $3.50 per square-foot of lawn replaced with native plants and “city-specified drip irrigation.” Starting April 15, the city also began offering a professional two-hour landscape design consultation for a small fee.

Brown has acknowledged that some cities and water agencies have already done a good job reducing water use.

Although Santa Monica’s 20% target matches the one that the governor’s office imposed on the city, Kubani said the state’s February 2016 deadline means “we’re going to have to move a little bit faster than the goal we set for ourselves.”

Between 60% and 70% of Santa Monica’s water comes from local groundwater wells, with the balance imported from MWD, said Kubani, adding that the city’s goal is to become water self-sufficient by eliminating imported water.

Santa Monica won’t know whether it will meet the state’s deadline until the city’s water allowances and penalties go into effect this summer, Kubani said. If they’re not effective, the city council may have to consider different allowances and penalties.

Based on the residents’ reactions and callers to Kubani’s office “wanting to know how they can save water and when this will all take effect, I think people are going to be very responsive,” he said.

Once the summer allowances begin, “I would expect we’re going to see pretty significant water savings,” Kubani said. The allowances require users to reduce water use by 20% over 2013 usage levels.

“For residential properties, if you’re already below a certain conservation threshold you don’t have to reduce anymore” — an approach that recognizes the efforts of users who have already saved a lot of water, he said.

“If you don’t drop 20% you will pay a $10 penalty for every 100 cubic feet of water, which is a billing unit,” Kubani said, pointing out that 100 cubic feet is 748 gallons of water.

“It’s not rocket science,” he continued. “It’s really about carrots and sticks. We’re trying to balance both of those. We’re providing a lot of incentives to people to help them save water with rebates for water-efficient toilets, shower heads, urinals and appliances. And also cash for grass so people will remove lawns.”

The “stick side provides a bit of urgency,” Kubani said. Water budgets or allowances with penalties attached can motivate consumers because “people don’t like paying penalties,” he said adding that, if they haven’t already, most water agencies will be taking this combined carrot-and-stick approach to resource management.

Given that renters make up the majority of Westside residents, the question arises as to whether these residents will be as motivated as homeowners to save water.

Akers pointed out that most apartment buildings do not have water meters for each unit.

“The water bill is just allocated across the tenants, so everyone bears the burden,” she said.

Both Akers and Kubani noted, however, that landscape care accounts for the bulk of water use and multifamily buildings typically have less landscaping than single-family homes.

Rent control laws typically limit costs that landlords can pass on to tenants in rent-controlled buildings.

During an April 9 meeting, Santa Monica’s rent control board discussed a proposal to allow landlords to pass through any water overage charges to the tenants, Kubani said. Even if that was to pass, approximately 80% of multifamily rental buildings in Santa Monica are already below water conservation thresholds, he said.

“Most multifamily buildings aren’t going to have to reduce their usage at all,” said Kubani. “I’m not anticipating there’s going to be a lot of water-wasting.”

According to MWD, landscaping accounts for up to 70% of total residential water use — overwatering, runoff, and evaporation waste accounting for nearly half of the water used outdoors.

Santa Monica’s Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (SMURRF), just south of the Santa Monica Pier ramp, captures runoff from the streets for recycling and reuse. It creates approximately 500,000 gallons of non-drinking water daily.

Removing turf saves about 42 gallons of water per square foot per year, according to MWD.  Smart irrigation controllers save about 13,500 gallons per year, and using rain barrels saves approximately 600 gallons annually.

Barrels for capturing storm water are a popular fixture at the Green Committee’s farmers market tent, said Akers, who favors a neighbor-to-neighbor approach to encouraging water conservation.

“I think people are very influenced by what they see being done within their own peer group,” she said. “Once you know  that your neighbor has a rain barrel or has converted her lawn, now you’re open to learning more about it.”

There is still work to be done, though.

“I hate to say it, but the day after all of the publicity around Brown’s mandate I still saw neighbors out in the driveway washing their car. And Tuesday morning, knowing that it was going to rain, I saw neighbors’ sprinklers running,” Akers said.

Akers supports a “recognition campaign” of positive reinforcement and praised the “guerilla” efforts of Omelet L.A, a Culver City-based advertising agency. Last fall, the agency printed about 1,000 “H2No” lawn signs and placed them on lawns featuring drought-resistant plants throughout L.A., including several Westside neighborhoods. The front of the blue-highlighted signs reads, “#H2No. I’m conserving water. Won’t you join me?” The back says, “You’re awesome!” and encourages people to visit the H2No website.

The signs were inspired by a staff member who expressed frustration about “grievous overwatering” of sidewalks and driveway, said Sarah Ceglarski, the agency’s senior director of marketing. The agency wanted to do something “aspirational” to “celebrate the beauty of California-friendly landscaped lawns,” she said.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, said Ceglarski, and no one told the agency reps placing the signs to get
off their lawn, as it were. The agency received “a lot of requests” for the signs, she said, noting that Omelet L.A. printed only a limited run and that many of the placards can still be seen around the Westside.

The busy Kuhlman is encouraged by the neighbor-to-neighbor efforts.

Asked whether “drought-tolerant” is the preferred descriptor for her landscaping efforts, Kuhlman said she prefers the term “climate-appropriate garden”: “A drought sounds like it’s going to end. You need to have a garden that’s appropriate to our climate. Sustainability is attainable.”