Does this winter's deluge and the official end of the six-year drought mean the death of the budding xeriscape movement? Can we gardeners forget about drought-tolerant plants and conserving water and get back to business as usual, pre-drought?
It might seem so. Gardens are as green as can be, blooming like they haven't in years. Nursery sales are booming, up 40% over last March at one large retailer. Gardeners are giddy about all the rainfall.
But water management experts and xeriscape specialists say the drought's end hasn't changed their views that water will become increasingly precious in the future. They see a few dark clouds on the horizon, and it's not the next storm.
They point to tough new environmental regulations that will restrict the supply of water, new rate structures and costly improvements to the water system, all of which will raise the cost of water coming out of the garden hose.
"The euphoria ought to last until they (gardeners) get their first water bill," said Warren Willig of ETo Limited, a water management consultant to water districts.
Some half-acre properties in the San Fernando Valley may see $500 water bills this summer, Willig said, "and now you're talking some serious money."
Water rates have gone up as consumption went down and in some communities, Santa Barbara, for instance, they have gone up dramatically. Other areas, including Los Angeles, will actually see a very small decrease at first, thanks to the superabundance of water, but then the rates will begin to climb.
Duane Georgeson, assistant general manager at the giant Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to Los Angeles and most smaller communities, says to expect rates to gradually rise over the next five years.
"We're trying to spread it out," he said, "so people can build it into their budget, but the price of product is going up. It's unavoidable."
New rate structures in many water districts will penalize heavier users. In Los Angeles, median residential use is 12 billing units a month, which equals about 9,000 gallons, and most gardeners use more than that.
Those who use more than 28 billing units in summer (June to October) or 22 units in winter can expect to see an increase from $1.73 to $2.98 for each additional billing unit. (Billing units are how consumption is measured on water bills; each one equals 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons.)
Georgeson and others think that saving water in the garden is here to stay, although Draconian methods may not be necessary. They point to new environmental concerns that limit the available water, to new water quality regulations that increase its cost, and to huge additions and improvements to the water system, such as the $1.5-billion storage reservoir to be built near Hemet by MWD that will help save water for the dry years.
All of these will increase the cost of water, and the environmental concerns have already begun to affect its availability.
Georgeson thinks the long-term water picture is "pretty cloudy" because of tougher and tougher restrictions to protect fisheries and endangered species, such as the winter run salmon, Delta smelt, long fin smelt and the Sacramento split tail. "Even when there's water," he said, "there's not always the ability to export that water."
Landscape designer and contractor Robert Cornell speaks for those who still see a need to save water when he says, "the bottom line is water supplies aren't increasing, but restrictions and population are." He plans to stick with water-conserving schemes in his designs.
"A lot of people I'm talking to think the end of the drought is pretty iffy," he said. "It's definitely not the kiss of death for xeriscape. People I know have learned to conserve and they are continuing to conserve, maybe more than the water agencies would like. They are in the business of selling water."
But the water agencies aren't backing away from the conservation effort either. "Things will never be the same, that's for sure," said Jerry Gewe, water resources manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. "If I were redoing a garden I had let go during the drought, I'd look toward the future and plan a garden that uses less water than I did in the past.
"We need to develop long-term efficiency in our water use. That doesn't mean depriving ourselves, but it means using water carefully. We can have any kind of garden we want if we have the proper mixture of plants, drip or zoned irrigation, things like that," he said. "You can do an awful lot without creating a swamp. Swamps are probably a thing that people aren't going to be able to afford it the future."
"Xeriscape is still a good long-term investment," said Cornell, "when dealing with an uncertain water supply."