Daily Water-Saving Tip #61 on the state of California’s website suggests, “Dig up that old shrub and replace it with a low water-use plant.” It may seem trivial, considering that the state’s water deficit stands at 11 trillion gallons according to NASA, but sound reasoning backs up the suggestion. These days in California, to have a green lawn—traditionally the hallmark of the American dream—is to wear a scarlet letter: a 1,000-square-foot yard guzzles between 35,000 and 75,000 gallons annually says the Association of California Water Agencies. Some people have gone so far as to paint their crisp lawns green.
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On April Fools Day, California governor Jerry Brown, standing on a brown swath of grass at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas—usually still deep in snow that time of year—made an announcement that wasn’t a joke: for the first time in the state’s history, he imposed a 25 percent water reduction on cities across the state (farms were excluded). This means replacing 50 million square feet of lawns with drought- friendly landscaping, and it requires cemeteries, campuses, and golf courses to cut back on irrigation. It will also issue a temporary rebate program for efficient appliances, and calls for updating standards for toilets and faucets.
In the face of this drought and mandate, landscape architects seemingly might be daunted. However, many are amply prepared to deal with the dry spell and have been so for decades.
“For me, it makes my job easier,” says Los Angeles–based landscape architect Mia Lehrer, who has been an advocate of sustainable landscape design for years and has led efforts to revitalize the L.A. River. Her Vista Hermosa Natural Park, completed in 2008, introduced natural ecosystems and integrated permeable surfaces and stormwater collection for irrigation. According to Lehrer, nearly every drop of water that falls on the site goes back into the ground or is collected in a 20,000-gallon cistern.
For Lehrer, expectations for landscape design need to be readjusted. “Someone may go to a resort in Barbados and come back excited about palm trees and plants that look like Barbados,” she says. Instead, she advocates imitating natural drainage systems with mulch and soil, choosing plants that are regionally appropriate, and making irrigation systems more efficient.
San Francisco–based landscape architect, artist, and designer Walter Hood echoes Lehrer’s sentiments: “Lawns are cultural. We have to think about why we need a lawn.”
He cites projects where, rather than a hard paved surface, he used decomposed granite and gravel so that water could reach subterranean aquifers. For the de Young Museum in San Francisco, he maintained existing palms and used plants found in the local context, including redwood and ferns, rather than bring in more water-guzzling non-native species.
To these landscape designers, complacency is the biggest offender. Droughts are nothing new in California—Hood points to lengthy droughts in the 1980s—but the natural cycles have been overlooked due to shortsightedness and California’s access to water from other areas, including the Colorado River and the Eastern Sierra Nevada. “We need to get people to understand what the natural ebbs and flows are. I don’t think you can live in California without thinking about that,” says Hood.
Indeed, the state water board announced, less than a week after the governor’s water-reduction mandate, that urban Californians reduced water consumption by only 2.8 percent in February—a “dismal conservation rate.”
“At some point, humans work best at the edge of disaster, so we need to be taken to the edge,” says Hood. “If you can get people to understand the context and consequences, you can actually start to get people to change.”