Capitol Corridor
Capitol Corridor
Capitol Corridor
University of California
Capitol Corridor

Drought concerns causing unnecessary impact on landscapes and lawns

UC ANR experts believe schools and parks should be a priority for irrigation, even during the drought.
Following Gov. Brown's call to remove 50 million square feet of turf in California to conserve water, cities across state are now offering rebates to residents willing to pull out their plants and lawns. However, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) turf and landscape experts are asking Californians to reflect on the consequences of replacing their living landscapes with mulch, rock, hardscape or artificial turf.

“Landscape plants and the water they use are under unrelenting attack,” says Don Hodel, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor in Los Angeles County. “But most of these attacks are misguided when one looks at the facts.”

Hodel and Dennis Pittenger, UC ANR Cooperative Extension area environmental horticulturist in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside, wrote a six-page commentary, 9%: The California Drought and Landscape Water Use, with facts about the relatively small amount of California's water that goes into landscapes, and the tremendous benefits to residents, communities and the environment provided by these plants. The article was published in PalmArbor, an electronic journal for the green industry.

“Landscape water use in California accounts for only 9 percent of total statewide water use,” the authors wrote. “Yes, that's right, just 9 percent. If we never watered another home or public landscape, park, sports field, or golf course in California, the state would save 9 percent of its total water consumption.”

Pittenger and Hodel named 12 ways lawns and landscape plants enhance the quality of Californians' lives and make urban areas more livable. Trees, shrubs, groundcovers, lawns and flowers provide:

  • Oxygen
  • Carbon sequestration to help mitigate global warming
  • Rain capture, dust and erosion control
  • Shade and energy savings in heating and cooling
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Food
  • Beauty and ornament
  • Recreation
  • Enhanced property values
  • Psychological well-being
  • Cultural/historic value
  • Jobs and economic value

Children get exercise in suburban green space.
The authors assert that California cannot conserve its way out of drought by trying to wring out significant water savings from the 9 percent that keeps landscapes alive.

Instead of shutting off the sprinklers, the authors call for “judicious irrigation,” providing just enough water to trees, plants and lawns to keep them alive. The authors believe judicious irrigation may be sufficient by itself to meet the 25 to 35 percent water reductions required by the state without changing the landscape to so-called “low-water use” or “drought-tolerant” plants.

“Most woody plants are actually drought-tolerant and low-water use once they are established and cared for properly,” the article says. “Research over the last 30 years has shown that water-reduction goals can be met while maintaining the quality-of-life benefits that landscape plants and functional lawns provide.”

Hodel and Pittenger also identified three urban water uses that should be considered priorities for outdoor irrigation, even in times of extreme water scarcity.

  1. Public parks, school play grounds and sports fields. “Children need to play and exercise on grass, not asphalt or dirt,” the article says. “And we all benefit from walking and exercising in a green, pastoral setting.”
  2. Bona fide botanical gardens and arboreta. “These research collections of plants have immense value,” the authors wrote. “For example, the plant collections at the world-famous San Diego Zoo actually have greater value than the animals.”
  3. Trees. “Mature trees are among the most valuable and difficult-to-replace plants in urban areas,” the UC ANR experts said. “Their loss would be devastating.

The director of UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources, Doug Parker, is a spokesperson for the University of California on water issues of statewide importance. He agrees that, in much of the state, urban communities benefit from natural plantings and turf should be a priority for recreation areas.

“It's true that rock gardens, artificial turf and hardscape do not provide much wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration or environmental cooling,” he said. “But in places like Palm Springs, they are appropriate.”

Having worked closely with policymakers, scientists, government organizations and consumers during the past four years of drought, Parker said he has reached the conclusion that Californians cannot build or conserve their way out of periodic droughts.

“What we really need is a change in mindset to learn to live with drought and uncertainty,” Parker said.

Following are free water-conservation publications from UC ANR:

Water conservation tips for the home lawn and garden
By Pamela Geisel, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus
Carolyn Unruh, staff writer

Managing turfgrasses during drought
By Ali Harvandi, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus
Jaimes Baird, UC ANR Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist, UC Riverside
Janet Hartin, UC ANR Cooperative Extension environmental horticulture advisor, San Bernardino County

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2015 at 9:34 AM
Tags: Dennis Pittenger (4), Don Hodel (4), drought (171), ladscape (1), lawn (10), turfgrass (9)


This is the most profound synopsis I have read in awhile about current landscaping advice and practices, and its impact on our environment. How can we address the larger picture of climate change, if we continue to remove so much volume of plant material from our cities? Smarter landscaping implementation is one thing, but forcing changes without good science is just plain short-sighted.

Posted by Robin Y Rivet on August 3, 2015 at 11:52 AM

As the person in our office who is responsible for maintaining our drought resources, I have to say that I was completely blind-sided by this "research." Do the authors really want for us to start telling people to go ahead and water their lawns in cities with desert climates? I would also like to know where the authors get their information about "values" acquired from green spaces, or is this just their own opinions?

Posted by Dan Stark on August 3, 2015 at 2:35 PM

The article is very misleading and does not indicate the source of the water from which the 9% is estimated. For homes with on-site wells, I can assure you that far more than 9% of water use goes to landscape. Not having a water meter on our well, makes exact measurement difficult. But after installing hose bib meters, my rough estimate is that at least 80% of our water use is landscape, including a vegetable garden. Our lawn is gone, replaced with wood chips, and in the fall will be adding drought tolerant plants. Trees and bushes are on drip irrigation. (Ten fruit trees consumed 150 gallons of water in just one hour! Our daily showers take only about 5-7 gallons.) Vegetables and other plants are carefully watered by hand at the roots, after checking the moisture level.

Posted by John Pearson on August 8, 2015 at 9:09 AM

One of the messages in our document is that considerable savings in landscape irrigation are attainable without devastating existing landscapes and the benefits they provide by using turf only where it is functionally necessary and by following certain other water management strategies and practices. A second message is eliminating or severely restricting landscape irrigation will provide relatively small savings in statewide developed water use but it will have relatively large negative impacts on landscapes and the benefits they provide. Many benefits of urban landscapes we note are self-evident, but there is research and science to document them as well. One example of a source of science-based information on the connections between human well-being and landscapes is the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois ( Examples of specific instances of landscapes’ benefits are reported at and  
Dennis Pittenger and Donald Hodel

Posted by Dennis Pittenger on August 12, 2015 at 9:09 AM

Kudos to Hodel and Pittenger for telling the whole story!! Replacing turf with gravel or artificial grass has negative environmental and quality of life consequences. Right now lawns are seen through the one dimentional perspective of water use. The message is lawns use too much water, therefore they are bad. It is a false conclusion. The article points out all of their benefits. Here are some water stats to put things in perspective. Of all the water that is accounted for by the Department of Water Resources, 48% goes to environmental river flows, 42% goes to ag, and 10% goes urban. Often the statiistics are presented saying 80% goes ag and 20% goes urban, completely ignoring environmental flows as if they do not exist. If you conform to the 20% urban use perspective, then 9% is ALL landscape water use in the state. Get rid of every lawn, shrub, and tree and that's all you save. By comparison livestock forage crops in California consume 13% of the water.

Posted by Jurgen Gramckow on August 14, 2015 at 12:20 PM

Leave a Reply

You are currently not signed in. If you have an account, then sign in now! Anonymously contributed messages may be delayed.

Security Code:

Read more

Webmaster Email: