Throughout 2021, the Western US grappled with widespread and severe drought, with California being among the most hard-hit areas.
Storms and record snowfall this past winter in California brought some welcome relief to this situation, chipping away at a major snowpack deficit and reducing drought intensity across much of the state. As SFGate reports, the storms helped to lift most of California out of “exceptional drought” levels, though Central California remains classified at the more intense “extreme drought” level.
IS CALIFORNIA IN A DROUGHT RIGHT NOW?
This is great news, but we should be clear: we are very much still in a drought.
As if to emphasize the point, California officials launched new water saving regulations to curb water waste early this year, cautioning that statewide drought persists and that we should all continue to take water saving measures.
Drought is not limited to the West, either. While the winter storms improved drought conditions in California, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest, drought “coverage expanded to include more than a half of the contiguous U.S. during the 2021-2022 winter”, and Texas had one of the state’s warmest and driest Decembers on record. As of April 5, 2022, 57.97% of the lower 48 states remain in drought.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
Recent precipitation may suggest a shift to wetter times, but these storms are more accurately viewed as the latest in a long line of extreme weather events linked to climate change. The current precipitation spike is further fueled by La Niña conditions, which will likely yield more heavy rain and snow in the next few months (for those interested, see the National Weather Service’s forecast for La Niña’s impact across the US).
Even as these extreme precipitation events continue, they will not last. Bottom line, we can and should prepare for drought conditions to continue.
WHAT CAN HOMEOWNERS DO?
Nationally, landscape irrigation accounts for a major percentage of residential water use – up to 30% on larger properties (per the EPA) and from 60%-90% in the arid Southwest (per the Journal of the American Water Works Association). Lawns are particularly thirsty, accounting for the majority of irrigation water on most residential properties.
Faced with ongoing drought, we should do what we can to reduce our landscape water consumption. How do we do this? We have some suggestions!
Right plant, right place
You can slash your irrigation requirements by choosing plants that are appropriate for your local climate.
We suggest starting with low water native plants. Having evolved to thrive in the local climate, natives tend to require the least inputs of water, fertilizer or maintenance. Plant them in conditions akin to their native range, and your irrigation needs will be minimal.
Climate-adapted plants with low water requirements are another good option. Look for species that evolved in climates and ecosystems similar to your own. For California, many plants from Australia, the Mediterranean, and South Africa are solid low water performers.
While climate-adapted, introduced plant species will not offer the same habitat value as natives, they will tolerate dry conditions and reduce your irrigation needs.
Native or climate-adapted, you can make a major impact on your irrigation needs by selecting species with low water requirements.
Particularly in hot and dry climates, lawns require vast amounts of irrigation to stay alive. They are also commonly overwatered, frequently receiving as much as double the water they need to survive.
Particularly in dry climates, we advise limiting functional lawns (play areas, etc) to a minimum viable size, while keeping purely decorative lawns as small as possible (or avoiding them altogether).
If you already have a lawn, you can let it die back during warm months, or put it on a water diet by watering it deeply but less frequently.
A well-designed, properly-functioning irrigation system can yield significant water savings.
Use drip irrigation for all landscape planting except lawns (use spray for lawns) – this will improve the efficiency of your irrigation system.
If you do spray, make sure the water lands on plants, and not on adjacent hardscape.
Apply irrigation in the evening to reduce loss of water to evaporation.
Conduct routine checks on your system to make sure there are no leaks.
Use a weather sensor, or, simply turn off your system when rain is expected or during cooler winter months.
Plant in Hydrozones
Hydrozones are clusters of plants in a design that all share similar water requirements.
Low water plants often end up receiving more water than they need when planted next to high water plants. By clustering all the low water plants in one area, and all the high water plants in another, you minimize the loss of water to over-irrigation.
We’d add to this: try to avoid high water plants entirely if you live anywhere that experiences drought. There are plenty of fabulous low water plants to choose from!
Insulate the Soil
Use mulch or groundcover planting to cover up bare soil. This traps moisture in the ground, making it available to plants.
Mulch and groundcover planting also keep the soil nice and cool (warm soil causes plants to use water less efficiently, requiring more irrigation to keep them alive).
Speaking of soil temperature, if you use gravel or rock as a mulch, restrict it to shadier zones. If you must place it in full sun, use it with heat tolerant plants. Rock mulches absorb and reradiate solar heat, and will heat up the soil beneath them in sunny areas.
Capture Water Onsite
By soaking water back into the ground, you can recharge groundwater supply (you’ll also help to mitigate flood risk and reduce water pollution).
Try to maximize permeable surfaces in your yard – these are areas like planting beds or gravel patios where the water can soak back into the ground.
To capture runoff from impermeable surfaces, like concrete driveways, surround them with permeable areas like planted swales.
Vegetation, especially groundcover planting, slows surface water down, buying time for it to soak back into the ground rather than allowing it to flow offsite into the drainage system. Roots from plants also break up the soil, increasing its ability to quickly absorb water.
We’re aware of many of trees’ myriad benefits, from the boost they give to property values, to the reduction they yield in home energy consumption.
Trees also can help reduce your landscape water consumption. Plants that enjoy the cooling effect of a tree canopy will require less water than plants exposed to full sun.
Tree roots, like plant roots, also improve the rate at which water soaks back into the ground, helping to fortify groundwater reserves and thereby reduce the need for supplemental irrigation.
EMBRACE DROUGHT TOLERANCE IN DESIGN
Drought may be with many of us for a while to come, but this does not mean our designs must suffer!
As we’ve discussed before, drought tolerant planting comes in a wide array of styles, extending well-beyond the succulent-heavy desert-scapes that commonly come to mind.
From meadow grasses, to sculptural shrubs, to bold perennial blooms, a huge variety of drought tolerant planting is available for our homes’ landscapes. The trick is choosing which of the many available species are best suited for our particular sites, and among those, which we love the most.
GET STARTED WITH YOUR WATER WISE LANDSCAPE DESIGN BY YARDZEN
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted plants and water saving landscaping in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.