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Title:

Water wonks drowning in good drought ideas at Huntington Gardens: Larry Wilson

Subtitle:

Date:

2015-05-23

Summary:

May 23, 2015 - A groups of water users and experts got together at the Huntington Library to discuss responsible approaches to the current drought.

Author:

Larry Wilson, San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Publication:

Pasadena Star-News

Content:

View of the Huntington Library's Japanese Garden, where the water comes from wells. (John McCoy/Los Angeles Daily News)

In this drought, the Huntington Library is in an interesting position, because of the third part of its name: “and Botanical Gardens.” (Second part, as you know, is “Art Collections,” which don’t soak up all that much of the precious stuff.) Water-wise, the 120 acres at the core of Henry Huntington’s old ranch are served by three separate entities: In case of fire, it’s city of Pasadena water from across the street. For drinking fountains and hand-washing on the grounds, it’s San Marino city water from the private California American company. But for those 12 separate gardens and their 15,000 plants, from the big cacti that wrote the book on drought-tolerant to the jungle vines in the humid hothouse, the Huntington’s water comes from three lucky wells on the grounds. Yes, we know, Governor Brown, almighty water master of our indeed Golden State, just because an agricultural enterprise has a well doesn’t mean it gets to suck the aquifers dry. The Huntington, just like Central Valley farmers, has to cut its water usage by more than a quarter of past usage, like the rest of us.

But it’s more expert at such than most of the rest of us, and so was a great place to convene a session Wednesday on conservation and public landscaping overseen by the Huntington’s director of botanical gardens, Jim Folsom, and co-sponsored by Pasadena Heritage. City commissioners, staffers and nonprofit heads from San Marino and Pasadena were there to listen to other experts, and it was the kind of big conversation in which you learn a lot about the crisis.

For instance, a common thread among these water mavens is that the lawn-removal fad, with the attendant Metropolitan Water District rebates, is a bit wrongheaded. Ethan Lipsig, on both the Huntington and Pasadena Heritage boards: “I am totally perplexed by the process in general. Why do we insist on removing the turf? It’s already mulch itself,” stuff that keeps what’s under it cool and moist. “Turf removal is just this act, and you have to have done it. Turf abandonment is just as good.”

These are the kinds of folks who nod their heads knowingly when someone says, “There’s DG, and then there’s DG” — different kinds of decomposed granite absorb water differently.
This is not a group in any kind of denial about the severity of the current drought. Tim Brick, the former longtime MWD chairman: “Everyone in California needs to buy in to cutting back 28 percent. We’re in a crisis.” But, he said, “It’s not a time for fingerpointing — even at ag, by the way. They’re getting, what, 5 percent of their allocation?” Brick agrees: “Turf rebates are not the most effective thing in terms of spending money.” But the group collectively acknowledged it’s good PR. Getting rid of lawns is fine, so long as homeowners don’t overwater replacement plantings.

The golf industry was represented as well, and Dave Sams, boss of the 36 holes at Brookside, noted he’s taken 28 acres of turf out on the Arroyo Seco floor, which will add up to 60 acre feet saved annually. The rule of thumb in the business is that fairways and greens take 22 gallons per square foot in a normal rain year; up to 30 in a drought. “But we have to cut back 28 percent, and that’s 16 gallons — and we are.”

I asked Shan Kwan, Pasadena Water & Power’s water boss, how much it would cost to connect Brookside to the purple pipe of recycled (i.e., formerly sewer) water that now stops near Scholl Canyon in Glendale. “$20 million,” he said. “Is that currently in any city budget?” “No,” he said.

Clearly it ought to be, and not just long-term. No public landscaping in Southern California should be irrigated with drinking water anymore. Smart people like these have their water work cut out for them.

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