The drought in California over the last few years has been long enough and sufficiently severe to compel mandatory urban water restrictions from the State Water Resources Control Board, an unprecedented policy move. The Board has also required, for the first time in state history, the reporting of per capita monthly water use data. And yet, in Los Angeles County, which has 10 million people and 88 cities, impacts of the State Board’s water use reduction mandates (from a high of 35 percent to the average of 25 percent) have been very uneven. Poorer cities use less water per capita to begin with, and 35 percent reduction for some of the highest water users still allows them to use more than their fair share.
The fundamental factor driving outdoor water use is the currently limited vocabulary of urban landscaping and its potential future.
This drought-driven push for reduced water use has led to some savings, but years of replacing inefficient appliances—including toilets, shower heads and washing machines—with water-thrifty models means the frontier for water conservation in Southern California is outdoor irrigation. Landscape watering is estimated at 60 percent of total residential use. In an effort to curb outdoor watering, the regional Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or MWD, provided $350 million to homeowners and businesses for turf replacement, and many cities, including the City of Los Angeles, have also developed their own complementary incentive programs for turf replacement. One could say without exaggeration that the MWD turf replacement incentive program is one of the largest natural experiments in landscape change ever undertaken. Websites replete with ‘California friendly’ landscaping tips and plant recommendations can be found from the state level to regional water agencies, including the MWD’s.
But to reach conservation goals, the more fundamental factor driving outdoor water use is the current vocabulary of urban landscaping and its potential future.
Californians are colonists, immigrants who brought their own vocabularies of landscape with them, or who had none and went for the easy and available. The dominant gardening vocabulary imported to California was based on an eastern U.S. aesthetic, where the lawn is the King of the Block in virtually all instances, bordered by exotic, often flowering, plants. As a result, in Southern California, British influence is stronger than Spanish: the Brits, with their passion for gardening, imported plants from all over their empire to create the decorative elements framed by The Lawn. They created a horticultural trade based in their colonies, so we have a rich selection of Australian and South African plants, but not as many from Italy, France or the rest of the Mediterranean. In fact, the official tree of Los Angeles (coral tree, Erythrina caffra) and the official flower (bird of paradise, Strelitzia reginae) are both from southern Africa.–(2016) by Stephanie Pincetl and Kitty Connolly for The Nature of Cities.
NewTerrain February 15, 2016.