All of California, and metropolitan Los Angeles in particular, is suffering from the four-year drought.
In the past year, statewide precipitation fell to 60% of the normal amount, and water from snow runoff was 40% normal. Some of the state's reservoirs are perilously low and a few are completely empty.
In Los Angeles, the City Council rejected Mayor Tom Bradley's mandatory water rationing program citing successful voluntary reductions in water consumption by city residents.
Although normal winter rains and snowfall will eventually resume, water shortages are now a permanent fact of life for greater Los Angeles because of the widening statewide gap between supply and demand.
Dams and aqueducts that carry water from the northern part of the state to the arid south are increasingly difficult to build because of environmental, legal and financial obstacles.
Southern California, moreover, can no longer rely on the Colorado River to make up the shortfall in supply because of a 1964 Supreme Court decision that allows Arizona to increase its consumption of Colorado River water in droughts. Next year, Southern California's share of that supply will drop from 1.2 million acre feet to 900,000 acre feet.
At the same time, demand for water is rising. Greater Los Angeles' population is about 13 million--a figure projected to reach 16.4 million in 2000 and 18.3 million in 2010.
Obviously, the increasing demand for water must be slowed, or even reduced, to preserve our quality of life and assure continued economic competitiveness and growth. What can homeowners and residential real estate developers do? How can we plan new homes and communities--and adapt existing ones--to the water-scarce future?
Make no mistake: To save water, Southern Californians need not endure forced water rationing. Nor do they have to install gravel lawns or plant their gardens with cacti instead of flowers.
The solution is a combination of four strategies: water-conserving landscaping, water-conserving technology, better water management through education and more realistic pricing of water to the residential customer.
Xeriscaping, the increasingly popular term used to describe water-conserving landscaping, blends drought-tolerant plants with those that may require more water.
Xeriscaping reduces large turf areas in favor of a wide variety of plants and shrubs that flower and provide a source of ground cover normally associated with areas of turf. Dozens of attractive "unthirsty" plants and shrubs are found in Southern California and offer year-round color.
When sensitively planned, xeriscaping creates an aesthetically pleasing landscape around the house or multifamily complex. The lawn appears more healthy, because xeriscaping eliminates turf from hard-to-water areas such as slopes, sidewalk strips, and areas next to the home. Further, the introduction of the unthirsty plants in place of the turf creates a richer palette of colors within the yard that can be enjoyed year-round.
Of course, xeriscaping's advantages extend far beyond decreased water usage. Its reduced turf areas also result in decreased use of herbicides, decreased amounts of fertilizer, decreased fuel consumption for lawn mowing and clipping removal and decreased labor costs for gardening.
Xeriscaping is an idea whose time has come. Before the current drought, several Southern California cities, including Los Angeles and Santa Monica, required that landscape plans for major developments be reviewed for water usage before approval.
Thousand Oaks, moreover, requires new housing developments to xeriscape the yard of at least one model home.
The second strategy for reducing residential water consumption is better use of technology. Many Southern Californians are already familiar with low-flow shower heads and toilets in their homes. However, they remain largely uninformed of the new-generation technologies that are capable of reducing water usage at the communitywide level.
The 1,800-home Northbridge community in Valencia utilizes much of this new technology. There, soil sensors in the ground relay data on a daily basis to an automatic irrigation monitor, which then adjusts watering times. Separate flow meters constantly check the irrigation system for damage in the lines, automatically shutting down parts of the system in the event of trouble. A laptop computer connects directly into the irrigation monitor, allowing Northbridge's developer to accurately monitor water usage at any time.
The Irvine Spectrum, a massive 2,200-acre office/industrial project in Orange County, also recognizes the advantages of using technology for water conservation.
"When it comes to water conservation in landscaping, the future is now, " said Mike Padian, director of development for the Irvine Industrial Co. "You either do it now or pay later; it's just foolish not to."