Landscaping law applies to 80 percent of homes


After spending months sweating over an ordinance regulating water use in landscaping for single-family residences, Menlo Park's City Council unanimously approved the substance of the law at its April 27 meeting.

The process of drafting the law, a modification of a state ordinance that went into effect at the beginning of the year requiring certain water-efficient landscaping techniques, inspired hours of argument and head-scratching on the dais over the three meetings in which the council discussed it. It was even detailed in a New York Times article that featured a photo of Councilman John Boyle standing in his spacious back yard, opposing a provision that could restrict lawn size, under the headline: "Water Conservation Could Limit Suburban Lawns."

But despite all the hubbub, the final ordinance in most essentials hews close to the state law already in place. It's not as restrictive as the ordinance developed by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), or the one originally proposed by city management. And it does not, in fact, limit lawn size a provision that Mr. Boyle and city staff now maintain was optional all along.

Menlo Park's law diverges from the state's in that it covers about four-fifths of the city's single-family residences, leaving out smaller parcels, while the state's applied to about one-half. While the state's law sets predetermined water-use limits, the city's does not. Instead, it requires homeowners to choose most of their landscaping from a list of low-water-use plants.

The city's law, which supersedes the state's, would also require covers for new spas and pools.

Homeowners would only have to begin complying with the ordinance if and when they apply to the city for new construction, new water service, or other projects, and only if irrigated landscaping work is part of the project.

Will the ordinance decrease residential water use? It's tough to say. The city hasn't estimated how much water would be saved, and won't enforce the law beyond reviewing initial landscaping plans.

Rick Ciardella, a local landscape architect and recent council candidate, said in an interview that he believes the state law will force the landscaping industry to employ more conservation-minded practices.

"The basic thing for me is that it forces the industry to produce plant material that's suitable for the California landscape," he said in an interview. "In five years, you're gonna walk down to Roger Reynolds and they're only gonna have low- and medium-water-use plants. The number of high-water-use plants is gonna be very small."

Mr. Ciardella successfully lobbied council members, separately and in private, to not apply the ordinance to smaller properties, to schedule annual check-ups on the cost to homeowners and amount of water saved, and to cut several minor provisions that he said were unnecessarily burdensome.

Like the state's, the city's law requires plants with similar water needs to be grouped together, mandates sensors that shut off sprinklers when they detect moisture, prohibits sprinklers from running between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and requires irrigation systems to be "70 percent efficient."

The vote was not entirely free of contention. Mr. Boyle asked to qualify language requiring people to agree to certain maintenance measures, saying he didn't want to encourage lawsuits between neighbors over weeding and mulching schedules. The council agreed to soften the language, though not without some debate and one very audible sigh of frustration.

The ordinance must still clear a procedural vote at a later council meeting.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 8, 2010 at 11:02 am

Taking a moment off, away from the HSR, here is some interesting data about water use in California.

86% is Agricultural use
8% is Residential use
6% is Industrial use

Putting bricks in toilet tanks sounds politically correct, but it's impact is actually miniscule. So is residential garden watering restricting. Trivial.

However, go ahead and do this as our new city law requires, since it provides a sense of virtue and self-sacrifice. But, please don't take it as consequential.

About that 86%. Have you ever driven through agricultural regions in California and watched the clouds of water rising from all the water sprinklers spread across the fields as far as the eye can see? Wouldn't you think that these billions of wasted gallons make a much more significant impact upon water use patterns in the state?

Why do the state's farmers do that? Because they can. Their water costs are fractions of our residential costs. They buy wholesale. We buy retail. In effect, California subsidizes agricultural water use for the sake of our very important agricultural revenues. However, that should not permit such extravagant waste.

I suggest that you stop watering your garden for a month and compare the difference to last year's same month of water consumption. Then you will discover how insignificant this difference is. There is no reason that you cannot water intelligently; that does not mean flooding your lawn!

The rule here is: Large changes in small systems are far less significant than small changes in large systems. We should be making small changes in large systems, like agriculture, rather than large changes in small systems, like personal use water restrictions.

Like this comment
Posted by Guest
a resident of another community
on May 8, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Most of the water problems in California come from the massive amount of water sent south to LA and San Diego.

A tremendous amount of water could be saved by controlling population growth in the state.

The restrictions on personal freedoms are out of control in this state. The Soviet Union didn't have most of the restrictions on personal freedoms that have been implemented in this state in the last decade. Yet for some reason we still call this the Land of the Free.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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