Lawns are terrible for the environment. California's water restriction

After years of on-again-off-again drought conditions and decades of precarity relying on imported water, Southern California has instituted major limitations on how residents can use water. Within weeks, residents will only be allowed to irrigate their yards once a week. Lush lawns and abundant flower gardens, your days may be numbered.

This is likely just the start. Climate change is wreaking havoc on water systems around the world, and drought conditions are projected for the Western United States through 2030 at least. What’s happening now in Southern California could soon be seen in broader swathes of the West. Watering limitations could dramatically reshape the look of the outdoors.

The new rules were put in place by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which delivers water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. In late April, it declared a Water Shortage Emergency, barring residents from watering more than once per week starting June 1. Individual water agencies within the district that are found to be exceeding limits will face fines, which will likely trickle down to individual water users. If conditions get worse, the district could enforce even stricter limitations, including an all-out ban on any non-essential outdoor irrigation. With an estimated 30% of a family’s daily water use going to outdoor irrigation, cutting down watering can be an impactful way to save water.

The strict watering limitations and the heat of the Southern California summer could mean yards across the region will turn to dust. But according to landscape architects and designers working in the region, this may be an opportunity to finally kill off dated ideas about suburban landscaping. The imposition of watering limits may actually accelerate current trends in landscape design, from the availability of plants to new ways of watering.

Good-bye fronds, hello, cacti

Despite annual rainfall that’s often measured in single digit inches, greater Los Angeles is still known for its lush yards and broad fields of grass. Thirsty trees like eucalyptus and ficus were planted with abandon in decades past, and though the region’s environmentally minded have been opting for succulents and cacti, green lawns make up the front yards of communities from Beverly Hills to Pasadena to Laguna Beach.

Vista Hermosa Nature Park, Los Angeles, CA. [Photo: courtesy Studio MLA]

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer says the new restrictions could help more people see the beauty in drought-tolerant plants. Her firm, Studio MLA, has designed several parks in the L.A. area that embrace species that are able to withstand low water conditions, including a garden outside L.A.’s Natural History Museum and a hillside park overlooking downtown. Rather than vibrant but non-native flowers and jungle-like fronds, these spaces use native grasses like buckwheat, shrubs like manzanita, and trees like singleleaf piñon that can persevere through dry periods. Lehrer says some sections of the gardens outside the museum, planted in 2013, only need watering once every two weeks. “For many of us in Southern California over the last 10 years, the issue of how much water we’re using and what plant materials we’re designing into projects has been front and center of design,” she says.

But designing around water scarcity isn’t as simple as getting rid of all the thirsty plants and replacing them with species better adapted to dry conditions. Many species weren’t even available at commercial nurseries. “It was tricky finding the plant material,” Lehrer says of those early years. “Sometimes you had to grow them yourself during construction.”

But now a wider array of plants is being sold by nurseries, and both designers and amateur landscapers can more easily include them in their planting plans, according to Lehrer. She expects the new watering restrictions to make designers and those commissioning them more open to using this expansive palette of plants in new projects. “There are so many varieties of trees that have come into the market,” Lehrer says, citing drought-tolerant trees like oaks and sycamores.

Eagle Rock Elementary School
Los Angeles, CA. [Photo: courtesy Studio MLA]

Old water is new again

John Lesak is a principal at the architecture and design firm Page & Turnbull, and he says there’s been a growing understanding among designers that drought-tolerant design is the way forward for Southern California. But regulatory and permitting issues have sometimes hindered the implementation of these designs. He points to water-saving techniques like water harvesting, such as the capture and storage of rainwater, and graywater reuse, which directs nontoxic waste water from kitchen sinks and showers into the landscape instead of the sewer. Some public agencies are quicker to appreciate these concepts than others, particularly those worried about people and pets coming into contact with potentially unclean water. “While the building folks may want to be doing this, the health people are saying hold on a second,” Lesak says.

These rules are beginning to bend. Lesak’s firm is working on a number of projects that are exploring new ways of landscaping without traditional irrigation. One is a pilot project for the San Gabriel Valley Water Conservation Authority that’s exploring new ways of capturing and reusing water on site. The project is a demonstration intended to show off new approaches to landscape design, and includes several wetland-like bioswales that can capture and absorb stormwater during the region’s infrequent rains, and large underground cisterns that can store recycled water for irrigation–approaches that can be tricky for homeowners to get permitted. The ideas being tested here could eventually find their way into residential yards and public parks.

One new design consideration this raises is that unlike a simple grid of buried irrigation lines and sprinkler heads, these approaches require a bit more space. That can be challenging in a region like Southern California, where rains are few and far between, and any storage system has to be able to hold a one-off deluge for months at a time. Lesak says new projects have to design in larger areas where cisterns can be buried, for example. But he says there’s a range of tools for accommodating the capture and reuse of water on site. “There’s a lot of exciting water storage technologies ranging from galvanized steel tanks to rubberized bladders that you can store in a crawl space,” he says.

More flexible regulations

Amid regular drought conditions, city agencies are becoming more flexible when it comes to approving new regulations for requiring drought tolerant plants, incentivizing the removal of turf grass, and even the reuse of water from sinks and showers.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Department of Public Health has issued new guidelines for the use of “alternative” water sources, including the non-potable graywater from kitchen sinks and clothes washing machines. “It clearly called out how to address water reuse safely and encourages owners to address stormwater, graywater, rainwater, and recycled water without getting bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy,” says Kathleen Hetrick, a sustainability engineer at Buro Happold, an engineering firm with an office in L.A. “It gave everyone in the industry more confidence that water reuse is a positive for a project, and not a headache.”

Other governments across California are making similar regulatory improvements. Hetrick says cities like San Francisco are even exploring the on-site recycling of so-called blackwater, including what gets flushed down the toilet, so that it can be used for irrigation. The drought and future water scarcity is pushing cities to think more expansively about where water can come from. “There are so many resources for creating the policy we need,” Hetrick says.

The changes underway have been building up for years, and the imposition of the region’s once-per-week watering limits may be a loud wake-up call to finally put them into place at a larger scale. That may not mean the widespread disappearance of the classic front lawn, but in a water-conscious future, they’re almost certain to be the exception rather than the rule.

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