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Joan Bolton


Joan Bolton: Water Conservation and the Drought

Local landscape experts meet to discuss ways to cut water use

Experts say interest in water-conserving landscapes like the one above is growing along with Santa Barbara County’s drought.
Experts say interest in water-conserving landscapes like the one above is growing along with Santa Barbara County’s drought.  (Joan Bolton photo)

By Joan S. Bolton, Noozhawk columnist |

They're not hitting the panic button yet, but there is an increasing sense of urgency on the part of Santa Barbara County water agencies to get out the word that the drought is serious, and that people need to start using significantly less water.

Earlier this week, water purveyors met at Chase Palm Park Center with about 30 landscape architects, designers, irrigation specialists, master gardeners, and other landscape pros to talk about the drought and explore ways to capture the public's attention.

"Obviously we had a lot of rain in recent days. But I want to make sure that people understand that we're still at only 46 percent of normal," said Len Fleckenstein, water conservation coordinator for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency.

He added, "Every day that percentage goes down, if we don't get rain."

Representatives from Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta said their water districts already have declared Stage One drought conditions, and are calling for consumers to voluntarily cut their water use by 20 percent. Mandatory restrictions of 20 percent or more could come as soon as this summer.

The trouble is, water consumption is up right now. Ironically — due to the drought — people are watering more than usual for this time of year.

"As of a week or so ago, we were at 10 percent higher than normal demand because of the increased irrigation going on," said Alison Jordan, water conservation supervisor for the city of Santa Barbara. "So we are asking for people that are irrigating to conserve more than 20 percent."

The water purveyors asked the industry folks what they were hearing from their clients. Responses ranged from "What drought?" to "Why are we hearing about this now?"

More, perhaps typical, inquiries included requests for shrinking or eliminating lawns, converting sprinklers to drip irrigation and installing new, water-conserving landscapes.

With water supplies dwindling, landscape experts say they are seeing a lot of interest in water-conserving plants such as these. (Joan Bolton photo)

In addition, Lesley Wiscomb, a leader with the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners program for Santa Barbara County, said her group held a waterwise workshop recently that was standing room only.

Barbara Wishingrad, a founder of Sweetwater Collaborative, said she has received many inquiries about installing greywater systems.

The conversation then shifted to what the water agencies plan to do next.

Rhonda Gutierrez, engineering technician and water conservation specialist for the Carpinteria Valley Water District, said that her agency is focusing on urging customers to conserve. The district also plans to survey customers about water use and set up a telephone and online hotline so people can anonymously report water wasters.

Madeline Ward, water resources technician for the city of Santa Barbara, said the city has doubled its ad budget, and plans to develop forums and training sessions for high water consumers, promote water conservation success stories, provide specific water conservation tips and renew efforts with local nurseries to feature waterwise plants.

Misty Williams, senior water resources analyst for the Goleta Water District, said the agency plans to develop water budgets for the district's 250 dedicated irrigation accounts, and may start up a new rebate program for waterwise landscaping and interior upgrades to residences and commercial sites.

The district expects to learn in May whether it will receive a grant to fund the program.

Before concluding the meeting, water purveyors solicited additional ideas from the landscape pros. The lengthy list that ensued included:

» Raise rates 1,000 percent.

» Create ads offering strong visuals of problems, along with practical advice.

» Convey financial incentives to the higher-ups.

» Install a submeter on every residence to show how much water is being used for various tasks.

» Host a workshop for maintenance gardeners to help them "re-skill," so that they don't lose their jobs.

» Offer a waterwise certification to add value to homes.

» Send a mailer to water users bluntly stating that we're going to run of water if we don't conserve.

» Tell users you'll reduce their water usage next year by as much as they exceed their allotment this year.

» Sign up precinct captains to conduct door-to-door campaigns to build a movement for water conservation.

» Set up a centralized calendar of water conservation workshops, events and other activities.

» Educate consumers about strategies, such as permaculture, that don't rely on irrigation.

» Start a campaign that "waterwise is beautiful."

» Replace city park turf with synthetic lawn.

» Expand access to reclaimed water.

» Sponsor pop-up advertising in grocery stores, retail stores and other public places.

» Offer a list of bomb-proof plants, showcasing one new plant each week.

» Let people know that planting natives helps sustain pollinators.

» Harvest condensation from fog.

» Hold a water festival.

» Change the theme of Earth Day.

» Educate consumers about how to convert sprinklers to drip irrigation.

» Standardize a conservation message to people who want turf, including offering information about how to better manage lawns.

» Offer instructions about how prioritize what to irrigate, including information about the economics of what to save.

— Joan S. Bolton is a local garden writer, garden coach and garden designer who specializes in colorful, water-conserving gardens. You may contact her through her website,, or email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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