Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the government responds. When floods are imminent, the National Guard is mobilized to build sandbag dams. After hurricanes and earthquakes, FEMA steps in to provide aid and assistance. Given that droughts move at a considerably slower pace, it’s reasonable to expect state and federal governments to respond in a timely manner with nuanced, well-informed policy.
Needless to say, the government doesn’t always live up to our expectations, and more often than not they either ignore a problem completely, or pay lip service to the issue with a few minor policy decisions.
Neither of these was the case in California, however. Since 2011, a significant shift in state policy has occurred across several California agencies, as political reality adapts to environmental reality.
Right now, you may be thinking to yourself, “I don’t live in California; why should I care?” You should care because it’s setting a precedent. California governmental bodies are acting as though this is a permanent shift in the state’s climate, not a temporary flux in weather patterns.
Whether or not they’re right, other politicians will follow in their footsteps if their state looks to be going the same way. If Wisconsin goes without rain for two years, local agencies will likely use California’s framework as a jumping-off point for their own regulation, even though their climate is very different.
By keeping up-to-date on how major droughts have changed regulations in California, you’re putting yourself ahead of the curve. You’ll be aware of what policy changes are likely to come down the pike, and your business will be ready when they do.
Although the western drought started in 2011, the first major reaction from the state didn’t come until 2014, but when it did, it made a splash. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in relation to the drought, and alongside calls for shorter showers and lowflow toilets, asked everyone to stop watering their lawns and let them go brown.
In that same announcement, the governor issued a mandate that all water districts would be required to reduce their usage by 25% from their 2013 levels. The mandate did take into account progress made in 2014, but for many property owners, that still posed problems.
“We’ve had to be very proactive to make sure that our customers don’t get penalized for being good conservationists,” said Chad Sutton, water manager at Gachina Landscape Maintenance in Menlo Park, California. Some of his clients overhauled their irrigation systems to maximize efficiency in 2012, and the local water districts weren’t even aware.
However, that appreciation of ongoing conservation efforts didn’t extend to individual property owners, and it didn’t extend back beyond 2013. In order to protect his clients, Sutton had to argue their cases to local water boards, a role that often involved educating them on what is and is not possible.
“We would show water districts that our properties were well under their water budget with what we’d already done, which sometimes involved developing a budget if the district didn’t have one already,” he said. “We would tell them the story of the upgrades we’d done, and show them how we’ve improved.”
The bare minimum was definitely a central theme of other significant regulatory efforts. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into turf rebates—without forewarning to the green industry, without any oversight, and with predictable results.
“A newly formed company came in and screwed things up,” said Nelson Colvin, president of Golden Oak, a green industry cooperative corporation based in Chatsworth, California. The company took advantage of a subsection of cash-for-grass called the Direct Contractor Rebate Program, getting homeowners to sign away their rights to the rebates in return for a free landscape.
“They would come in with a small army, rip out the lawn and put in gravel, not even decorative gravel. The property owner would end up getting maybe 10% of what their rebate was worth,” Colvin said. “Because the MWD’s program had no requirements for a minimum amount of plant material in the replacement landscape, properties across Los Angeles got turned into gravel pits.” At the height of the rebate period, this company submitted 97% of the applications to the direct contractor program.
For all that, the governmental response to the drought was swift and uncompromising. Once you filter down through the layers of bureaucracy, you find agencies with a more nuanced understanding. California’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) puts limits on how much water new landscape installations, and revisions of existing landscapes, can use. When MWELO was revised in 2015 at the governor’s behest, it compromised between the directive to tighten standards, and what is physically and economically possible to require in a landscape.
The ordinance expanded to cover new landscapes of 500 square feet or more, rather than the previous 2,500-square-foot threshold. It also reduced the area of high water-use plantings from 33% to 25%. Installation of a traditional landscape was still possible with sufficiently efficient irrigation, but the trend was definitely towards more drought-tolerant plant material.
Colvin says that in spite of all that, grass isn’t gone, and traditional landscape installation work is still out there. “The maintenance contractors are still making money; the landscape contractors are still making money. It’s not business as usual, but we’re getting back to that,” he said.
It took years to happen, but the government has finally awakened to the threat drought poses to everyday Americans. The question is whether they will stay alert to that threat, and whether the regulations they’ve imposed will adjust to meet realworld conditions.
None of us know for certain what the future will bring, and neither do the regulators. We can’t predict the weather, but we can sometimes predict how other people will behave, and people with more information tend to make better decisions. The more we can educate ourselves, our fellow green industry members and, yes, the government, on what is and isn’t possible, the better off we’ll be.
This supplement prepared by the Irrigation & Green Industry editorial staff.