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Xeriscapers Put Down Their Roots : Low-Water-Use Plants May Be a Good Way to Save the Yard With a Drought Just Starting

October 23, 1987|SUSAN HEEGER

Your lawn is baked to a crisp, your hose running at a trickle and you must choose who gets a drink: The dog or the last begonia.

If this seems unthinkable, it isn't to Nereus Richardson, acting manager of the Orange County Water District. With county rainfall for the year at just 47% of normal, Richardson warns, "We're into the first year of a definite drought. This year, we're asking you to conserve. Next year, we'll be telling you."

His suggestion for a head start? "Plant some low-water-use plants."

Richardson is one of a growing number of water industry and landscape professionals, particularly during Water Awareness Week this week in Southern California, who are advocating the latest in Southland landscaping--"xeriscaping."

Based on the Greek word xeros , meaning dry, the xeriscape method promotes "the conservation of water through creative landscaping," according to landscape architect Lisa Iwata of San Clemente. Rather than planting thirsty exotics from wetter climes, landscaping specialists in xeriscape use Southern California natives and other drought-tolerant plants as a way "of living within our means," Iwata said.

That is not to suggest living meagerly. "People imagine scrub brush . . . (but) a xeriscape can be colorful, fragrant and lush," said Iwata, co-chairman of the 5-year-old Orange County Steering Committee for Xeriscape, which promotes the practice locally.

It can also ensure a landscape alive with birds and busy with butterflies. "These gardens bring back the native animals," said Regula Campbell, whose Santa Monica firm designed a xeriscape at UC Irvine.

But if xeriscape isn't all tumbleweed and cactus, neither is it emerald lawn, the bane of water savers. Mike Robinson of the Yorba Linda Water District, which recently started its own xeriscape committee, estimated that nearly half the water used in suburban Orange County goes for turf grass irrigation.

If Trends Persist

"We'd like to reduce non-functional grass areas," Robinson said.

Therein lies the rub for some potential xeriscapers.

Mike Evans, co-owner of San Juan Capistrano's Tree of Life Wholesale Nursery, which specializes in native plants, explained the Southland's longstanding love for lawns: "Long ago, when Easterners came west, they brought their landscape heritage--lawns and English gardens."

Now, Iwata said, many of her clients see replacing a lawn as "un-American."

However, "they're relieved when I show them alternatives. No one wants to spend every weekend watering, mowing and tending grass," she said.

Yet if current population and water-use trends persist, there may not be any choice.

According to Fred Adjarian, Water Awareness Programs Administrator at the Municipal Water District of Orange County, the region's water consumption will soar from about 189 billion gallons annually to more than 246 billion by the year 2000, when the county's population will have grown by a projected 600,000.

While local water reclamation projects recycle about seven billion gallons a year for golf course irrigation and other uses, Adjarian said, a larger problem lies ahead. Three-fourths of the county's water supply is imported, and its flow is expected to slow considerably.

Bob Gomperz of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said Orange County's imported water comes in roughly equal parts from two sources: the Colorado River and the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California.

Over the next few years, Gomperz said, Southern California will lose 60% of its current take of Colorado River water as Arizona, using a new aqueduct system, claims a larger share of the river's flow. The region also could face a reduction of imported Northern California water once a three-year review of Sacramento Delta water rights is completed by the State Water Resources Control Board, Gomperz said.

Could Save 20%

Metropolitan is studying options for water sources, but in the meantime, he said, "Xeriscape is extremely important as a conservation measure."

Although no definitive studies yet exist on its water-saving effectiveness, Gomperz predicted that if the entire Southland converted to xeriscape yards and gardens tomorrow, "We could save 20% of our overall water consumption."

And the case for xeriscape is by no means impractical. The Tree of Life's Evans speaks enthusiastically of creating "authentic gardens in harmony with their surroundings" by using, in large part, plants native to the area.

"California deserves to look like California," he said, blaming the overuse of foreign plants for what he termed "the pasted-on look" of some regional landscapes.

Dr. Allen Cottle of San Juan Capistrano called such landscapes "generic-type." Seven years ago, he and his wife, Dana, had one designed for a Spanish colonial-style home they were building on an acre of a former orange grove. Before they put it in, however, along came Mike Evans.

Struck a Chord

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