Don’t grav­elscape L.A.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Mia Lehrer, Claire Latané and Margot Ja­cobs Mia Lehrer, Claire Latané and Margot Ja­cobs de­sign and ad­vo­cate for mul­ti­ple-ben­e­fit land­scapes, in­clud­ing school­yards, ur­ban parks and forests, and projects along the Los An­ge­les River.

Drought panic and re­bates in­cen­tivize too many quick and dirty so­lu­tions for our wa­ter cri­sis.

Peo­ple are start­ing to panic about their lawns. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Wa­ter District is adding $350 mil­lion to its lawn re­moval re­bate pro­gram and home­own­ers are scram­bling to rip out grass and re­place it with some­thing easy and oh-so drought tol­er­ant— gravel or ar­ti­fi­cial turf. At least one lawn re­moval con­trac­tor promises to do it for free (the com­pany cashes in the re­bate). Drought panic and re­bates in­cen­tivize too many quick and dirty so­lu­tions for our wa­ter cri­sis. All over the city— and es­pe­cially in park-poor ar­eas, where postage-stamp lawns may be the only re­lief from pave­ment— we have to think be­fore we act. Will ex­chang­ing a liv­ing, breath­ing yard for a bleak grav­elscape save wa­ter? Some. But is it the only way? Is it the right way?

Be­fore you call the gravel truck, here are a few things to con­sider.

Hold on to wa­ter

Los An­ge­les was de­signed to shed wa­ter. As early as the 1920s, we started en­gi­neer­ing our land­scape to take rain­wa­ter to the ocean as quickly as pos­si­ble, so it wouldn’t cause flood­ing. That means rain washes off rooftops and pave­ment, into gut­ters and storm drains, and then into con­crete-lined rivers and out to sea. Be­cause we’ve paved so much of the land­scape, our a quifers don’t recharge when it rains— the wa­ter can’t sink in.

That has to change. Al­most 90% of our wa­ter is im­ported from un­re­li­able sources, and state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are man­dat­ing a de­crease in im­ported wa­ter of as muchas50% by2024. As we pre­pare to rely on lo­cal wa­ter, we need to re­fill our aquifers.

The best way to do it is with a planted land­scape. Gravel is per­me­able, and OK in small doses, but it doesn’t ab­sorb and hold wa­ter as trees and plants do. And just tear­ing up grass and lay­ing on gravel does noth­ing to keep wa­ter on a site. Re­shap­ing and plant­ing the land to hold and in­fil­trate wa­ter can in­crease our wa­ter sup­ply.

Re­bate bet­ter

The wa­ter sup­ply it­self needs re­shap­ing too. Rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing, gray wa­ter re­use and re­cy­cling wa­ter from sewage treat­ment plants can dras­ti­cally re­duce or elim­i­nate our need to wa­ter the land­scape with potable wa­ter. Laws and pol­icy have to change to ease re­use, and wa­ter agen­cies and cities have to ed­u­cate and even re­ward the pub­lic for do­ing so. In­cen­tiviz­ing turf re­moval and not re­use is short­sighted.

Wa­ter smarter

Ourlawns and gar­dens are of­ten over­wa­tered by two to three times what they need. Tur­f­grass com­pa­nies rec­om­mend wa­ter­ing lawns with only 1 inch of wa­ter once a week. (Put out a can to mea­sure how much you’re wa­ter­ing.) Over­wa­ter­ing (or fer­til­iz­ing) na­tive plants kills them.

Es­tab­lish­ing plants, trees and yes, even turf, with less fre­quent, deep wa­ter­ings will de­velop deep roots and a land­scape that with­stands long pe­ri­ods of drought. If ev­ery­one wa­tered only as much as needed, we could make a big dent in wa­ter use.

Con­serve the ecosys­tem, not just wa­ter

Liv­ing land­scapes aren’t just about aes­thet­ics; they are ben­e­fi­cial in mul­ti­ple ways. Birds, bees and in­sects (pol­li­na­tors all) need what trees and plants pro­vide. Hu­mans do too.

Gar­dens and lawns act as air con­di­tion­ing for L.A., which is only get­ting hot­ter with cli­mate change. Plants and trees pro­vide shade and tran­spire mois­ture to cool the air; gravel and ar­ti­fi­cial turf don’t. In fact, they cre­ate the op­po­site of a vir­tu­ous cy­cle: Fewer plants means more heat, and more heat means faster evap­o­ra­tion from wa­ter­ing, swim­ming pools and veg­e­ta­tion. More heat also means more wa­ter to sup­port the same land­scape.

Re­plac­ing lawn with plas­tic grass in par­tic­u­lar can block oxy­gen fro­menter­ing the soil and tree roots; it may suf­fo­cate what trees and plants are left after turf re­moval. We can’t af­ford that; we need to pro­tect and add trees and plants that shel­ter pol­li­na­tors, hold wa­ter, ab­sorb C02 and cool us down.

Make the right change

Los An­ge­les would no doubt be bet­ter off with­less turf. But no­tif we re­place it with gravel or plas­tic. Al­most any­thing grows in L.A. if you just add wa­ter. But so much will grow even if you don’t.

A shady gar­den filled with flow­ers and trees na­tive to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, or pop­u­lated with plants from south­west Aus­tralia, South Africa’s cape and the lands around the Mediter­ranean Sea needs lit­tle to no wa­ter in the sum­mer— maybe once a month.

Your land­scape can also bor­row from L.A.’s past, when ma­jes­tic Cal­i­for­nia oaks of­fered oases of shade on golden grassy sum­mer hill­sides; lupines, pop­pies, sages and buck­wheat punc­tu­ated spring and fall with bursts of pur­ples, or­anges, pinks and rusty reds; and rib­bons of wil­lows and sycamore shaded roses, rushes and grasses along creek beds and river­banks. These plants sur­vive long sum­mer dry spells with deep roots that hold soil in place dur­ing winter rains. And they’re beau­ti­ful.

———— The drought is spark­ing longneeded ac­tion to­ward wa­ter in­de­pen­dence. Los An­ge­les can be a city of land­scapes that col­lect rain, give shade and pro­vide food for the pol­li­na­tors that help feed us. If you have acres of green grass or grass you don’t use, a new de­sign is a good idea. If you have a tiny or well used yard, make smaller ad­just­ments and wa­ter with care. Ed­u­cate your­self. By all means take ad­van­tage of re­bates, but don’t fall vic­tim to dead land­scapes that aren’t worth the money or the wa­ter saved in the long run.

Los An­ge­les can build a frame­work of deep roots and deep un­der­stand­ing of the mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits of eco­log­i­cal de­sign. De­spite its rep­u­ta­tion for su­per­fi­cial­ity, the city can shed its thin skin, do a lit­tle re­shap­ing and root-strength­en­ing and cap­ture and con­serve wa­ter. Even “shal­low” L.A. can be­come known for a beauty that goes be­yond skin deep.

Wes Bau­smith Los An­ge­les Times

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