May 16, 2010
08:47 PM

The New Water-Efficient Landscape Ordinance & Your Garden

Eucalyptus Magazine welcomes guest blogger Astrid Gaiser.

It’s here and it’s here to stay. Since January 1, a new Water-Efficient Landscape Ordinance is in effect for the state of California.

Depending on the community you live in, the ordinance’s wording, regulations, and enforcement will be slightly different, but all versions have a common set of goals, which are much applauded by landscape professionals and environmentally conscious homeowners alike:
Water-efficient landscapes will stretch our limited water supplies: From 50 to 70 percent of our drinking water is used to irrigate our gardens, and lots of it goes to the thirsty lawns. Reducing the water needs of your garden is the best thing you can do to save water in our years-long drought situation.
Reduced irrigation runoff: Avoiding irrigation runoff from overspray and misting will reduce the pollution of waterways and lead to less property damage.
Less green waste: Reducing watering means less green waste: A lot of plants that are very generously watered react with growth spurts which in turn lead to more pruning. Limiting watering to a reasonable level saves green waste and—even better—your manual labor. Get your Saturday afternoon back and save money at the same time.
Increased drought resistance: Water-wise gardens will survive even if we will run into serious drought conditions. The lawn will not. A water-wise garden can look as beautiful and lush as any other garden.
Smaller carbon footprint: A low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, sustainable garden has a much smaller carbon footprint than a garden that needs to bring a lot in (fertilizer, mulch, annuals) or get a lot out (green waste). Stick with perennial native or Mediterranean plants, compost your green waste, and use your compost as a mulch to feed and protect your plants.

Most water districts offer additional incentives to convert to a more water-wise landscape. Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD), for example, offers landscape rebate programs to replace irrigation and even entire landscapes. In Santa Clara County, single-family homes, multi-family homes, and business properties with 5,000 square feet or more of irrigated landscape can receive rebates for replacing plants that require lots of water—such as irrigated turf grass—with plants on their approved plant list that use less water, and/or permeable hardscape. Owners of single-family homes can receive up to $2,000 and owners of multi-family homes and business properties may be eligible for up to $20,000. You can visit SCVWD’s web site for details and eligibility. And always have your landscape pre-approved and pre-inspected before you start construction.

The Water-Efficient Landscape Ordinance helps to achieve the goals laid out above by giving cities, counties, and other agencies tools to understand and predict properties’ water usage. One of these tools is calculating a water budget. There are two interesting numbers:
• One is the Maximum Applied Water Allowance—this is how much water a landscape of a certain size and in a certain area should be using.
• The other is the Estimated Total Water Use—this is how much you estimate your new landscape will use.

Other tools are landscape, irrigation, grading, and drainage plans as well as a soil test performed by a soil testing lab to help homeowners plan and understand the needs of the landscape better.

These requirements for calculations and plans sound scary at first, but many municipalities are considering moving to easier models, possibly employing a simple checklist that asks the homeowner questions like:
• How much lawn do you have on your property (as a percentage of total space)?
• How much of your planting area is planted with drought-tolerant plants like California natives or Mediterranean plants?

In talking to David Kornfield from the City of Los Altos, I learned that Los Altos has so far adopted the state’s model ordinance, but is considering moving towards an easier, checklist-type of documentation.

According to the state’s model ordinance, new, homeowner provided landscapes with an irrigated area above 5,000 square feet as well as existing landscapes over one acre are subject to the ordinance. David told me that Los Altos applies the ordinance to “required landscape areas” only. In single-family districts, the required landscape area includes the front yard and privacy screening, which is generally below the 5,000-square-foot threshold to apply the water efficient landscape regulations. This means if you live in Los Altos you are still generally free to do with your yard as you want. But please check with your city anyway before you build a new landscape; retaining walls and garden structures such as trellises often require building permits.

And even though it’s not required, why not build a water-wise, sustainable garden anyway? You’ll save your time and money (for watering, pruning, and mowing) and the environment at the same time.

Astrid Gaiser is a landscape designer, horticulturist, and Certified Green Building Professional. She specializes in drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, sustainable gardens designed for extensive outdoor living. For more information call , see or e-mail .

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