Splendor in (Ripping Out) the Grass

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Water was in the day's headlines when we gathered for the first of a series of summer evening conversations entitled "Just Add Water: The Discussions" at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County last Thursday evening.

A Los Angeles Times headline read "Board moves to impose statewide water use curbs." The story described emergency drought regulations the State Water Resources Control Board will consider on Tuesday to require urban water agencies to impose restrictions on outdoor water use and authorize fines of up to $500 a day for offenders.

The headline on The New York Times top editorial of the day was "Saving Water in California," but the tone was pure tsk-tsk: "California is in the third year of its worst drought in decades. But you wouldn't know it by looking at how much water the state's residents and businesses are using." Painfully true, but coming from that source it is all too tempting to reply: "Mind your own business!"

Speaking of minding your own business, last week The New York Times reported on Californians who are turning in their neighbors for using too much water--though sometimes, it turns out, water is just another thing to fight about in long-running neighborly feuds.

nhmla1.jpgWhen I asked the local water, gardening and landscaping experts on the museum panel--Carol Bornstein, Emily Green, and Pamela Berstler--whether they had turned in anyone lately, they all hastened to reply, "No." Would they? No, they all agreed, that's not the best way to deal with the situation.

What about the forthcoming fines? "Not high enough," they all agreed. The price most people pay for water is far too low, said Carol Bornstein, the director of the museum's nature gardens, from which the sweet scent of sage and other native plants wafted into the Otis Booth Pavilion, where we chatted with a full house under the skeleton of a giant fin whale as the sun set and the marine layer rolled in.

Emily Green--veteran journalist, a specialist in water and western landscapes, and blogger at Chance of Rain--said that the price of water should remain low for people who use only the water they need for their households and cannot afford more, but that tiered pricing should rise much more steeply than it currently does for people who use more water and can afford to pay for it.

As we were settling in, one audience member told me that she had just ripped out 1,000 square feet of lawn and gotten a $3-per-square-foot rebate from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. So I asked the panelists what they would recommend to someone who has $3,000 and a thousand-square-foot blank slate for new landscaping. Pamela Berstler, whose G3 Green Gardens Group teaches courses to provide just such guidance, said there are a few standard elements she recommends: First, landscaping that absorbs rainwater, letting it all percolate into the ground and producing no runoff. Second, mulching and other gardening practices that build up good, healthy soil. And third, native plants that can survive with little or no water through our dry summers and droughts, with spare use of other plants that may be special to residents, such as a kitchen garden that produces food. There's no single answer though, Berstler said, because every site and every resident is different.

While many of us were interested in what we could do better in our own yards, the panelists all took pains to stress that what happens with our public spaces--such as parks, open spaces, schoolyards, and municipal and corporate owned properties--is probably more important. These big, high profile spaces need to reflect a new aesthetic--suited to our arid Mediterranean climate, which will steadily become hotter in the coming years with global warming--and a new reality of more carefully managing every drop of water that comes our way. Until then, we'll still be living in a Los Angeles captive to the illusion of "Splendor in the Grass," the title of Thursday's discussion.

Each of the discussions has a title that riffs on a movie title. Next Thursday's discussion, entitled "The River Runs Through It," will focus on the LA River and feature panelists Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, Allison Carruth, an associate professor in the English department at UCLA and one of the creators of "Play the LA River," and Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

"Just Add Water: The Discussions" is presented by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in conjunction with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and Boom: A Journal of California.

More by Jon Christensen and Mark Gold:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed