Water Wise

‘Stress lawns, save trees’ in today’s drought

By Dan Vierria
July 2022

Welcome to the third year of extreme drought. As survivors of water restrictions and veterans of nurturing landscapes through heat, smoke and ash, we get rewarded with an extra serving of hot, dry mess. Crying about it is another waste of water.

“Extreme drought, followed by extreme wet seems to be normal climate now,” says Amy Talbot, the Regional Water Authority’s water efficiency program manager. “Every year there is a new crisis and people may be suffering from drought fatigue. I hope people can say, ‘I can adjust.’”

Sixty percent of water used during Sacramento’s hottest months is in landscapes, not indoor.

Waste from runoff and evaporation runs 20 percent to 30 percent during the hottest months.

According to Talbot, drought-resistant landscaping has become more “socially acceptable,” but the challenge remains to remind residents that water usage and waste are more prevalent in summer.

“Plants don’t save water, people save water,” Talbot says. “Swapping out your landscape to native plants doesn’t necessarily save water if you continue to irrigate using the same amount of water.”

Entering Sacramento’s hottest months, the water authority, which represents 20 water providers and 2 million people in the Sacramento region, emphasizes saving our beloved trees at the expense of lawns. The campaign slogan: “Stress your lawns, save your trees.”

During the previous period of drought (2012–2016), a 2016 assessment for the city of Sacramento revealed a chilling statistic. Eight percent of Sacramento’s tree canopy was dead or dying and another 11 percent was on the critical list.
“We lost a lot of trees,” Talbot says. “Lawns came back, but trees died.”

The water authority leads a partnership of water providers. Among the members are the cities of Sacramento, Folsom, Roseville, West Sacramento and several water districts, including Sacramento Suburban Water District, Carmichael Water District and Elk Grove Water District.

The goal is to provide safe and reliable water supplies, support the region’s economy and “preserve the environment of the American River.”

Sacramento is among the top 10 urban tree canopies in the country and has been called the “City of Trees” since the 1850s. When lawn watering days are reduced by water districts, trees growing in lawn areas can mightily suffer.

Even during the warmest summer months in non-drought years, trees need supplemental water. A dead mature tree takes decades to replace.

The water authority and Sacramento Tree Foundation recommend five basic practices to nurture trees through the current drought:

Be diligent testing soil moisture around trees. Use a moisture meter to probe soil and check for adequate moisture. A screwdriver and your finger are alternate methods. If dry, water the tree.

Slow, deep watering is best. Water should seep 6 inches to 8 inches into the soil.

Mature trees (5 years and older) benefit from soaker hoses or drip irrigation at the drip line, where branching ends. Stop when water runs into gutters or onto sidewalks. Wait an hour or so and soak again.

Young trees require more frequent watering. Soak them two or three times a week with 5 gallons at a time. The “bucket method” is recommended and directions can be found at bewatersmart.info/young-trees.

Finally, spread a layer of woodchip mulch around the tree base to the end of the canopy, keeping it 4 inches to 6 inches from the trunk. Mulch cools the soil and retains moisture.

Helpful information on tree care and related drought tips to preserve gardens can be accessed on the websites of the water authority at rwah2o.org and the Sacramento Tree Foundation at sactree.org. Water districts also provide help for customers.

Those who have lost trees or plan fall landscape projects may want to attend Harvest Day Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Pam Bone, a retired urban forestry farm adviser, is a featured speaker. Her timely topic will be “Selecting trees for the home landscape in a changing climate.” Harvest Day is the premier gardening event in the Sacramento area. Admission is free.

Dan Vierria is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener for Sacramento County. He can be reached at masterg29@gmail.com. For answers to gardening questions, contact the UCCE Master Gardeners at (916) 876-5338, email mgsacramento@ucanr.edu or visit sacmg.ucanr.edu. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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