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It's time for NorCal cities to offer cash for grass

POSTED March 7, 2014 7:58 p.m.

Southern Californians have a tendency to have a smug attitude toward water.

But the truth is Northern Californians aren’t much better.

In times of drought we talk about how “they” are using “our” water to fill swimming pools, hose down sidewalks, flood gutters, power ornamental fountains and maintain lush landscaping.

Take a look in the mirror. We do the same thing. As the comic strip character Pogo once said, “we have seen the enemy and it is us.” 

There is little doubt Southern California is a massive importer of water. It is an arid region with limited local sources of fresh water. Without water from the Sierra, Owens Valley and Colorado River, much of the urbanized Los Angeles region would not exist.

We are not far behind in many areas north of the Tehachapi Mountains. San Francisco and San Jose are not thriving on local water resources. If there wasn’t a series of reservoirs far away from urbanized portions of Northern California, everyone would be drinking from underground aquifers and sucking them dry.

What happened in Los Angeles in the early years of the 20th century would happen here. We’d either have to stop growth or ration water permanently unless new sources of water were developed. Like it or not, imported surface water sustains much of California including the north state.

And those of us who reside and farm in the great Central Valley are like Los Angeles in another critical way. We have a Mediterranean-style climate. That means not a lot of rain and more sunshine than elsewhere. Without the great water works we have deployed, the Central Valley would be a vast dry, semi-desert region in the late spring, summer, and early fall.

That said, some 38 years and 16 million less people since the last critical California drought Los Angeles has started to get its act together while most Northern California cities haven’t.

Los Angeles has instituted much tougher water conservation standards and residents pay more for water. The move has been to more and more drought resistant landscaping. Southern California entities have taken to recharging underground aquifers with treated wastewater, recycling treated wastewater for everything from landscape irrigation  to drinking, and are starting to get into desalinization.

The San Diego County Water Authority is building  the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalinization plant in Carlsbad at a cost of $1 billion. When completed in 2016, it will provide water for 300,000 residents or 7 percent of the county’s population. It isn’t cheap. It will take the average water bill up 10 percent or roughly $7 a month.

Yes, Southern California is still building swimming pools as well as homes with lush landscaping but they understand that water is a precious commodity and that they can’t depend on the heavens for adequate amounts even if they import it.

That’s not the case in Northern California.

If you doubt that look in your front yard at the biggest user of water – grass.

The grass we have is imported. It thrives in the Midwest, South and East Coast where they can often actually grow crops relying just on what water that falls from the sky. They do not have a Mediterranean-style climate with mild and arid weather. They often get as much rain in July than we get in February, which is typically our wettest month of the year. There are native grasses and their close cousins that can survive and thrive here with very little extra water beyond what nature provides.

The reason non-native, water-guzzling landscaping is the norm here has everything to do with how we have re-engineered nature and created the world’s largest and longest water storage and conveyance system. It takes water from where it is plentiful to where it isn’t. It is what built California, both in the north and in the south.

To make that system do its job, as well as to support additional growth and protect the environment, we need to start emulating urban water strategies found in Southern California.

The biggest saver of water and the easiest and least painful to do without substantially changing lifestyles is to replace grass – especially that in  front yards – with drought-resistant landscaping. Very few families use front yards as play areas. They are essentially a pleasing visual.

Valley cities would be wise to ponder implementing what the City of Sacramento is doing in its “Cash for Grass” program. Homeowners can apply for rebates of 50 cents per square foot up to 1,000 square feet from the City of Sacramento for replacing grass with drought-resistant landscaping.

The rebates can easily be justified by avoiding the cost of having to drill new wells or treat more surface water as a city grows.

It’s easy to blame Southern California for our water situation.

But it’s much more effective to do something about it that is cost-effective and relatively easy to do.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

 

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