How to Completely Change a Weedy Lawn

This weedy lawn had been bothering the homeowners for a long time.  It was a nice lawn when it was first put in, but needed to be maintained often.   As busy professionals, they really did not have the time.  On the other hand, they wanted to be friendly for the environment and have a small footprint.  The lawn, they felt, used too much water.  When they heard of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Program, that after a turf was converted to water efficient landscaping a rebate would be given to them, they felt the program was just for them.  They could ditch the lawn that took too much work  and used too much water, have brand new landscaping that would use much less, and receive money for doing all this.  They happily got on board.

weedy lawn

Outdoor Lawn Watering: Heavy Water Use

Lawns use a lot of water. According to Ben Erickson,  “While the amount of water needed will vary depending on your climate, the weather, and the time of year; the general rule of thumb is to make sure your lawn receives 1″ of water to your lawn per week during dry conditions.”  So, for a 1000 square feet of lawn, in every week of dry conditions it needs 623 gallons of water, or, 89 gallons a day!

water use for lawn

Imagine 89 gallon water jugs, that is how much water the lawns needs to drink every day.  According to USGS, “Each Californian uses an average of 181 GALLONS of water each day. ”  If we use the number (89 gallons) from the example above, outdoor water use accounts for almost 50% of the overall use.  That is very close to the actual case.  Per “STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032″, “In many areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping.”  In other words, half or more of our water (in the city) is used on outdoor landscaping.  That is a lot of water when you think about it.

Two California Water Bills – SB 606, AB 1668

On May 31,2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into effect two water use efficiency bills, SB 606 and AB 1668.   “In preparation for the next drought and our changing environment, we must use our precious resources wisely. We have efficiency goals for energy and cars – and now we have them for water”.

Historical California drought from 2012-2016
Historical California drought from 2012-2016

In the bill, a goal is set for indoor use   “Establishing an indoor, per person water use goal of 55 gallons per day until 2025, 52.5 gallons from 2025 to 2030 and 50 gallons beginning in 2030.”  If we use 90 gallons as the baseline for today, by 2030, we need to use 44.4% less water than today to meet the goal.

A goal for outdoor will be announced in the near future.  Though we don’t know the actual number yet, we can guess it won’t be  just 1% or 2%.  To achieve that kind of water saving, one of the most effective ways is to replace the lawn with landscaping of drought tolerant plants, which usually can save water by 30-60%.

In addition to the big water saving benefit, there are two advantages that come with it.  After the lawn is gone, the need for mowing is gone too.  While the water wise landscaping still needs to be maintained, the effort required is generally much less than that for lawns.  For busy professionals like the homeowners of this house, it definitely is a great plus.

Another big benefit is the choice of the plants.  Instead of the mono color of green, the drought tolerant plants come in many shapes, colors and textures.  You can choose the ones that sport blossom of red, pink, yellow, purple, white or others of your favorite colors.  That is exactly what the homeowners did for this garden.  They loved flowers and wanted to fill the garden with many of them.

Apply for the Landscape Conversion Rebate

Before the project started, an application was submitted to Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Program.  After they received the application, the water district did an on-site inspection and measured the sizes of the lawns that qualify for conversion and the rebate.  After the visit, they sent out the “Notice to Proceed”, which indicated that project could kick off.

Install the Water Efficient Garden

The project started!  First, all the grasses were removed.

Lawn transformation

Then, a small rain garden was built.

Take full use of rain

Rain water is a valuable source of water.  When it rains, water that falls on the roof and flows from downspouts onto impermeable surfaces like driveways will just run off.  This is a waste of water. A better use is to let it soak into the ground and recharge the ground water.  In the process,  harmful particles can be filtered out before the water go back to the ground water, versus being discharged directly into waterways, harming birds and other aquatic animals there.

This downspout comes directly into the garden, which provides a good opportunity to catch the rain and let it soak down in the garden.

Lawn transformation

A small ditch and depression was dug.   When it rains, rain water from the downspout  will flow to this small depression, and soak into the soil.  The plants in the depresson were picked to stand both wet and dry conditions.

Rain garden

One key component for drought tolerant garden is the drip irrigation.  Compared with overhead spray, it can save water by 15 gallon each time you water.  Since water slowly drips down, there will be much less runoff, and thus, much less water waste.

Rain garden

drip irrigation

To save water, another important equipment to install is the rain sensor.  When it rains, it can detect and send the signal to a smart controller, which will delay the scheduled watering.  In many cities, it is now the law that “no watering 48 hours after measurable rainfall (1/8”)” .  With the rain sensor, this can be done automatically, saving so much time and effort.

Rain sensor

Keep the “good old” plants

When an old garden was to be cleared up, not all the old plants need to go.  The ones that still look good, especially if they are drought tolerant, can possibly be keepers.

This flower bed was full of lavender.  The lavenders were lovely bushes, just that they  were obstructed by the weeds.  Lavender are wonderful low water use plants, bloom for a long time, and attract pollinators like bees.  It was decided to be kept as part of the new garden.

Once the weeds were removed, the flower bed looked beautiful:

Bees love to visit and feed on the blossom:

Receive Landscape Conversion Rebate

The garden is done!  This was before

Weedy lawn

The new garden

Garden

Water Efficient Garden

The water district conducted a post inspection.  The lawn was converted successfully, and qualified for the rebate.  A couple weeks later, the rebate check was received.

With the transformation of the lawn, a significant amount of water will be saved.  Instead of a weedy pad that would need so much care, the owner got this beautiful front yard with her favorite flowers, greeting her every day when she leaves for and comes back from work.  When it rains, the rain water from the roof will flow out to feed the plants and go back to nature.  On top of all these, she received a check.  Why wait?  Start today and plan for a water efficient garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Makeover Story: From Barren to Beauty (1)

This story is about an amazing transformation from barren to beauty.

When the owners moved into the house, the first thing they wanted to change was the front and back yards.  It was barren, utterly unattractive.  The main part of the front yard was this hard surface covered with sand.  It had been used as a parking space for years.  The backyard had the similar hard sandy surface as the path, with a big bush of catti plants in the middle.  When it was windy, the sands from the surfaces would be blown up and hit everything around: people, dogs, kids.  It could be messy.

Barren old front yard

Old Back Yard

The owner wanted beautiful landscapes for their yards; meanwhile, they also wanted something that is environmentally friendly, that would not use a lot of water.  To be “good” to the environment was important for them.  They wanted to be efficient for all natural resources, keeping the footprint on environment as small as possible.

Addressing the challenges of building a garden

When one looked at the front yard, the challenges for building a garden was obvious.  A big lot.  Hard surface. No top soil.  And, on a slope.  For plants to grow well, at the minimum, they would need water and soil.  How would these be addressed?

Capture and reuse rain Water

When one checked on the site, they would see two downspouts, one on each side of the house, come right down to the lot.   They pointed to hard surface, which would just let the rainwater runoff.   That is quite a waste.   Rainwater is an excellent resource of water, which can be used to water plants.   To capture and reuse rain water, one can use a rain barrel, or build a rain garden.  As the the front yard is on a slope where rain water would flow down naturally, a rain garden built close to the bottom of the slope could capture the rain water and reuse it well.

Downspout 1
Downspout 1
Downspout 2
Downspout 2

When it doesn’t rain, plants still need water to establish and grow.  For irrigation of a water efficient garden, drip irrigation is the way to go.  It can point to the root area for each plant precisely, so water can get to where it is needed exactly, without mass runoff.  Compared with a sprinkler system, drip can save water by 30-60%.

Select hardy and drought tolerant plants

As the soil under the surface is very hard from years of being used as a parking lot, it was not the best soil for many plants.  Ideally, the soil could be improved with materials such as compost and organic matters over a longer period of time; however, the option was not  available due to the time limit of the project.  This made the selection of plants especially important.

Many native  and other plants are adapted to California’s soil system and can thrive in all kinds of soils.  They can be hardy for tough environments, and need little water once established.  They also have other benefits.  A lot of them produce blossom that are good food for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, supporting a vibrant Eco system.

California Native Plant

Repurpose of the existing plants

For the design of the back yard, it was decided that the bush of cactus plants would go; the space would be emptied for other uses.  The catti plants thrived well in the micro system around the house, making them a a good bet for the soil conditions in the front yard.  Instead of discarding them, the catti would be reused for front yard.

Catti Bush

Building the garden

After the design of the garden was finished, the project entered installment.

Installing a rain garden

There are several parts to this.  First, proper discharge of rain water from the down spout.  Instead of letting the rainwater just go down to the ground and run off, the water would be drained into the garden.  Ditches were dug, pipes were connected.   Two  channels were also dug from the end of the pipes to the rain garden.  When it rains, rain water would be discharged out of the pipes, into the channel, then flow into the rain garden.

Pipe 1

Pipe 2

Stream 1

Stream 2

Then an area was dug for the rain garden.   The shape of the rain garden usually is round or curvy, to reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

After that, plants were put into the rain garden.  There are some special requirements for such plants.  Specifically, they should be able to stand both wet and dry conditions well.  Better yet, they can add color and texture to the garden, making the garden look even more attractive.

Lastly, the whole area of the channels and rain garden were filled with pebble stones.  Once the stones were added, two “streams” and a “pond” came into life.  When it rains, all the roof’s rain water would flow into the stream,  out to the pond, seep through the pebbles, water the plants, then percolate deep down and recharge ground water, an act badly needed for our environment.

Rain Garden 1

Rain Garden 2

In big cities where surfaces like concrete is prevalent, only 5% of rain water can infiltrate deep into the soil, depriving groundwater the opportunity of being recharged.  Areas like rain garden can change that and let as much as 25% of rain water go deep under.  Recharging groundwater  is very important for keeping a healthy water system and providing backup when drought hits.

Impervious Cover

A lovely catti Area

Catti plants are favorites for many people!  They come in all kinds of shapes, colors and forms, some of them sporting splendid and beautiful flowers.  They are very drought tolerant, needing only very little water once they are established.  Catti plants can fill out a full garden, or can be integrated as part of a bigger garden, just like what was being done here.  Here they fill out the long stripe along the driveway, offering something wonderful to see and enjoy when one comes home.

Catti Plant 1

Catti Plant 2

A magnet for bees  and birds

Plants with splendid blossom provide the food that bees, birds and other pollinators depend on.  As bees’ population has been on a decline,  it is even more important that we provide places where these small creatures can feed on and take a good break.  Compared with a lawn which does not provide any food or shelter, gardens with drought tolerant and native plants can become a paradise for bees and birds.

Here, this plant was planted in a row along the pathway.  When it blooms, it has this bright beautiful blossom that is hard to miss.  It is not just us who love them,  bees and birds crave them too!

Plant for Bee

Bee

Parking Strip not to be ignored

Compared with the main garden, quite often, parking strips are “after thoughts” since they are a bit small.  However, in quite some cases they still have sizable spaces, and are an important part of the front space.  They can also be filled with the drought tolerant plants and native plants, adding to the curb appeal, and food for bees and birds.

Parking Strip 1

Adding Mulch

After the garden is finished, an important step is to cover the whole surface with mulch.  There are several benefits of this.  First, they can significantly slow down water evaporation, keep soil moist longer so reduce water required for the plants.  They can also suppress the growth of weeds, further reducing water usage.  Third, organic mulch like this made from bark can disintegrate into the soil over time, adding to the organic matters in the soil, improving soil quality and water retention capability.  Aesthetically, they provide this backdrop for all the foliage and blossom, making the space look even more appealing.

A brand new garden

Tieing all the elements together…the new garden was born!  The space has dramatically changed.  Here was how it was like:

Old Yard

And the new garden:

A rain garden doing well in rain

Shortly after the garden was finished, several storms hit the area.  How did the garden do in the rain?

All came out to be good!  Water flew into the stream and pond as designed; plants enjoyed the rain and grew well.

Off the garden, water that came down from impervious surfaces like driveway pooled into runoff, which would flow out to a sewer and empty into the streams and rivers.  There were lots of pollutants in the runoff which would hurt the animals living in the waters, and pollute the broader water system.  That is why we should limit the areas with impervious cover and try to build more rain gardens, like the one shown here.

With a design of native and drought tolerant plants, the front space of this residence has been completely transformed.  Not only has it gone from utterly unattractive to beautiful, but also become  a wonderful place for bees, birds and butterflies.   As the plants are drought tolerant, only a little water will be needed after the plants are established.  Low water use, beautiful, great for the bees – water efficient gardens can add so much charm for your space!

Capture Every Raindrop In Your Garden

After a long dry winter rains finally came!  For three days the rains just came down heavily.  This garden was completed right before the rains. During the rain, raindrops can be seen coming down from the two down spouts, going right into the the soil of the garden.  The plants waved gently in the rain, as if saying: “Thank you!”

Water Efficient Garden in rain

downspout in rain

Before – brown lawns

The owner has been at this place for some time.  Ever since he moved here, he had not done anything to the front and back yards.  The lawns went brown during the drought, looking quite barren.   Even after the very wet year of 2017, they did not come back.  Finally, when the owner heard about the Santa Clara Landscape Rebate Program in his city, he decided it was the time to start doing something.

He wanted to build a garden that will meet all the requirements of the rebate program.  After he did some searches online, he found the website of Water Efficient Garden, where he got exactly the information he needed.

Brown Lawn

In the backyard  there is an olive tree.  It is a large tree with lots of black olives lying on the ground.

Olive tree

Designing the Garden

The owner wanted to have a simple and easy conversion which would meet all the requirements of the Rebate Program.  Luckily, there are  a large number of attractive drought tolerant plants to choose from.  When selected carefully, even just with a few, the plants can make an elegant and water efficient garden.

In Mediterranean areas like Spain where the olive trees originate from, the tree can be seen everywhere: in the open fields, at the hill tops, etc.  There, lavender, rosemary, and other Mediterranean natives also grow in abundance.  They are well adapted to the climate there, very drought tolerant, yet with attractive flowers and aroma.

California shares the same Mediterranean climate, so these plants also do well here.  For the backyard design, it was decided some of these plants will be used, keeping the Mediterranean vibe alive.

Olive tree in Spain
An olive tree on top of a hill at Barcelona
Capture every drop in the garden

The front yard sits next to the side of the house, with thick bushes almost completely blocking out the wall.  When the project started, the grasses were removed, the bushes cut, exposing the wall.   On it there are two down spouts, pointing to the yard below (only one is shown in this photo).  So, when it rains, all the rainwater from the roof will go into the yard, not driveway or other impervious surfaces, which is excellent.

After the historical drought that ended just last year,  people all realize now how valuable water really is.  With population increase and climate change, our demand for water will only increase.  On the other hand, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack will “very likely” shrink  by 30% in the next 20 years, the supply will decrease.  How can we have enough water to meet our demand?

A big chunk of water do come to us every year, but in the past we send a large part of it away right away – the rain water.  Rainwater is not a waste, but a very valuable resource of water.   Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, “Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.”

If the rain water is directed to impervious surfaces like driveway, the water will just become runoff and be sent right away, which is a waste for this valuable water resource.   In places with natural ground cover, 50% of the rain water can go back in the soil.  In urban areas where a big chunk of surfaces are impervious,  only about 15% of water goes back.  Specifically, only 5% of the water infiltrates deep down, versus 25% with natural ground cover, which seriously deprives the ground from water recharging that is badly needed.

So, when it rains, we should direct as much water as possible to our garden, let it water the plants, soak into the soil, and recharge the ground water.   By capturing every drop, we can make the best use of the water that fall on our roof every year.

After – drought tolerant landscape

The garden projects are done!  This is how the front yard looks now:

To further absorb the rainwater, a small ditch was made in the middle of the garden.  Filled with pebble stones, the “river” can take all the rain water coming down the two down sprouts when it rains.  In addition to capturing the rain water,  it adds a vivid element to the landscape, making it look more lively and appealing.   The rocks scattering across the garden add yet more textures and balance out the “river” in the middle.

All the plants are drought tolerant. They sport pink, purple, yellow and white blossoms, making the garden not just water efficient, but also cheerful.

For the backyard, in front of the Olive tree, another Mediterranean native  – the lavenders, add color and aroma.

a water efficient garden

Close to the patio, a native plant from California flank the pathway with their tiny blue blossom and dark green leaves.

California native plant

Irrigation controller and drip irrigation was done for all the plants.  In addition, a rain sensor was also installed, which is connected to the irrigation controller.  When it rains, the rain sensor will send signal to the controller, which will delay the irrigation scheduled until the rain stops.  A simple device can save even more water for the garden.

How does it do in the rain?

Right after the garden was installed, a much-waited-for rain came.  For 3 days rain kept pouring down.  How did the garden do?

Very well.  While the rain that fell on the driveway inevitably runs off,  every drop of the rain that fell on the roof all went into the garden from the two down spouts.  Plants love the rain water, which is not  treated with chemicals, as is the case for in-house water.  Plants grown up with rain water usually grow faster, stronger, and have better and larger blossom.

After the project was finished,  information such as garden photos were submitted to the Rebate Program, which issued a rebate promptly.

By converting a brown lawn into a water efficient garden, the space looks much more appealing.  In a dry place like California, it can save 30-60%  of water comparing with a lawn, saving cost and maintenance work.  On top of it, when it rains, it can absorb every drop of the rain water, feeding the plants, and saving even more water.  For all these these great benefits, you can receive a rebate of $1-$2 per square foot.

The owner was happy with the project.  “It looks very good.  We are really happy with the design. ”

We are not receiving the average level of rain this year;  it looks we are going to have another dry year.   We’ve got to be prepared for the dry time now.  Why wait?  Start today!

lawn to water efficient garden conversion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Garden – Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden

When it rains, we enjoy hearing the sound of raindrops on our roof.  After a drought of so long in California, those drops sound more like music to our ears. While enjoying the music, have you thought about where the stormwater goes to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.  What if that water is not sent away, but reused, such as, turned into beauty in your garden?

  beauty in garden
Storm water: waste or asset

In the past, stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out to waterways in nature as soon possible.   As people realize now, there are several issues of this.

First, a big chunk of water is lost.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances. It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away.

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, ‘Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.’”

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into the waterways untreated, the toxic substances can pollute the water and harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life that live there.

One more issue is the loss of deep water infiltration.  As the water that falls on impervious surfaces such as roof and concrete is sent right away,  water that would otherwise have gone into soil, percolated and recharged the ground water is lost.  As you can see, in cities where impervious cover is common, runoff can be as high as 55%, versus 10% with natural ground cover.

Rainwater Runoff

It has become clear that rainwater is not a waste, but an asset, a valuable resource of water supply, something that we should capture and reuse.  While a common way to do so is using a rain barrel, there is another more direct way – build a rain garden.

What is a rain garden?

According to Wikipedia, “a rain garden is a planted depression or a hole that allows rainwater runoff from impervious urban areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas, the opportunity to be absorbed. This reduces rain runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground (as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater).”

“The purpose of a rain garden is to improve water quality in nearby bodies of water and to ensure that rainwater becomes available for plants as groundwater rather than being sent through stormwater drains straight out to sea. Rain gardens can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30%.”

So exactly what is a rain garden? To understand, we just need to turn our eyes to nature.

Imitate the nature

In spring time, when we go to a nature reserve or park, chances are we can see fields and fields of wild flowers.  No one ever installs an irrigation system or waters these plants; they just live and keep turning out splendid blossom, year after year.  How do they do it?

The answer is, after tens of thousands years, the native plants have adapted to the environment.  In California where it rains in winter and gets dry in summer, another area in the world that has Mediterranean climate, plants take in all the water they can get in winter, grow rapidly, and bloom in spring.  When summer comes and it becomes dry, they slow their growth or simply go dormant.  They stay this way until winter, when the rains come again.  As the raindrops come down, they “wake up” from the dormancy, drink up all that water and start to grow and bloom again.

They don’t need any additional watering; they just take all the water there is and live throughout a year.  This is what plants in a rain garden will do.

At a rain garden, the depression or ditch will collect the rainwater runoff from a roof.  When it rains, water will be collected there.  The plants in the garden will absorb the rain water, and grow; When the rain season ends, they can just live on their own.  Very little or no additional watering is needed for these plants in most cases.  Just like their brothers and sisters in the nature, they can live with just the rainwater.

Compared with water supplied to each household, which is treated with chemicals to comply with the sanitary standards, guess which water the plants like better?  Plants watered with rain water can usually grow faster, bigger, and have brighter blossom.

Designing a rain garden

Like so many lawns in California, Larry’s (not his real name) lawn turned brown during the historic drought. Though the drought ended and last winter was one of the wettest on record, the lawn did not come back . The brown lawn had been bothering Larry for a long time, but he was not sure what to do about it, until he heard that his lawn can be built into a beautiful garden; not just any new garden, but a rain garden!

One of the downspouts (the one on the left) is right next to the front yard. When it rains, the rainwater will just flow into the garden. The lawn is on a very slight slope from the house to the sidewalk, so the runoff will go outwards naturally. If a shallow basin is built close to the side of sidewalk, the rainwater can reach there and be stored in it.

That is exactly the design proposed to Larry. A small winding ditch will take the rainwater from downspout, and send it to this shallow basin. Some plants will be planted.  After they absorb the rainwater in winter, they may only need a little watering in the remainder of the year, saving a remarkable amount of water.

In addition, since the garden would meet all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebates program, the garden can apply for the rebate.

Larry liked the proposal. It was a “Go” for the rain garden!

Installing a rain garden
  • First, the shape of the garden needs to be defined.

For the safety of the foundation, the rain garden should be some distance away. Usually it is advised that at least 10 feet of space should be left between the basin and the house.

Distance

  • Next, the shape of the rain garden is outlined.

How big should the garden be?  It depends on how much runoff the roof can produce, and design an area that can take much of that runoff.

Suppose the area of the roof is 1000 square feet, with one inch of rain, it can produce about 600 gallons of runoff.  If the rain garden is 1 foot deep, to absorb this much water, it needs an area of about 80 square feet.  If the roof area is bigger, the rain garden should be larger too.

What shape can a rain garden be?  It can be of anything  – a circle, a bean, or a peanut.  The smooth, curvy lines of these shape not only look appealing, but also reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

  • Soil preparation

The bottom of a rain garden needs to be covered with a special type of soil, to help with water infiltration. It is a mixture of organic materials and coarse sand.  The bottom of the whole area that water flows by and stays should be covered with the mix.

  • Plant selection

Plants in a rain garden should be able to stand both conditions well: wet and dry. Their roots should be able to take moisture for a long time, yet also survive in hot dry summer.

One plant that fits this very well is the Douglas Iris.  A tough California native, it can be found close to beaches along the west coast.  Hardy, drought tolerant, yet tolerant of wet soil,  this is great choice for a rain garden.

The beauty of a rain garden

The garden is done!  This is before

and after

The rain garden

Rain Garden

When it rains, with a garden like this, the rainwater will be captured, and reused.  Something that was sent away before can be turned into so much beauty in our own garden!

Rethink stormwater – waste or asset?

When it rains and all the raindrops fall on our roofs, have you thought about where the stormwater go to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.

stormwater

Stormwater – a waste?

Stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out as soon as possible.  A complete infrastructure is in place to get this done: gutters and downspouts to collect rains that fall on the rooftops, drains and catchbasins to gather runoffs from downspouts, streets and parking lots, underground storm sewers will then convey all the runoffs and discharge them to a natural water system such as a creek, river and ocean.

There are a couple issues with this.  First, a big chunk of rainwater is lost to runoff.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances, which can be used directly for outdoor purposes, as well as indoor with proper filtering and cleaning.  It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away, requiring another huge set of infrastructure to deliver the water we need.

stormwater runoff

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into nature untreated, it pollutes the water system discharged into. Toxic substances from cars and pesticides can harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life.  Nutrients from the fertilizers can cause the overgrowth of algae, depleting oxygen in waterways and aquatic habitats.

The third issue is insufficient water infiltration for the soil under the impervious cover and in general.  As we can see in the illustration below, in a natural environment (left), 25% of water is infiltrated in shallow surface, and another 25% will percolate deep into the soil.  In a city environment (right), those figures drop down to 10% and 5% respectively, so the water that goes into soil reduces from 50% of total to a mere 15%, a 70% reduction.  The lack of deep infiltration is a big problem.  Without proper recharge, the groundwater is seriously depleted in many places.  As we rely on ground water as part of our water supply, this has a big impact for our water safety.

stormwater comparison

Lastly, waterway erosion and threat of flood.  As a huge amount of water is gathered and discharged into waterway, the volume and speed it packs can erode the banks of the stream or river; when the volume is too heavy, it can flood surrounding areas.

stormwater

Benefits of capturing and reusing rainwater

People’s thinking about rainwater has completely changed.  Now, rain water is no longer thought as waste; instead, it is viewed as an asset, something we need to capture and reuse.

  • A source of water supply

From 2013-2017, California experienced a historic drought.   At its worst point, the water content in the snowpack was only 5% of normal.  The drought was so severe, it was one of the worst in the state’s history.

California drought

After the drought, everyone realized we could no longer take the water supply as we knew it for granted. With climate change, drought might become more frequent and serious; on another hand, with economic expansion and population growth, our demand for water will just grow.  How can we build the reliable water supply that can meet our needs?

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. While the potential is still unknown in the Bay Area, Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year, said Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board. This may sound trivial compared to the 33 million acre-feet people use statewide each year, but it’s not. “Stormwater could make a difference,” Moore said. “It could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.”

From a cost perspective, local stormwater capture is one of the cheapest methods for water supply.  It is only more costly than urban water conservation, but much cheaper than others like recycling and ocean water desalination.

  • Reducing pollution and recharging groundwater

As the importance of rainwater is more thoroughly understood, people have been taking all kinds of steps to keep rainwater instead of letting it flow away.  In the cities, permeable surfaces are replacing the impervious ones, and more and more rain gardens have been built, in the streets, around offices and in our gardens.

When it rains, the rainwater can infiltrate the soil from the permeable surfaces and rain gardens.  In the process, harmful pollutants in the water can be filtered out; the cleaned water can percolate deep in the soil, replenishing groundwater.

Here is a storm drain at a street corner.  The catch basin around it was built into a rain garden, allowing the rain water to sink into the soil.

a rain garden at a street corner
a storm drain at a street corner
  • Reducing the threat of erosion and flood

Since water is directed away from the runoff, the total runoff volume will reduce, and the speed and energy that it packs up will lessen.  As a result, the force to erode will be smaller, and threat of flood lower.

Building a rain garden

So if you want to build a rain garden now, where can you start? Check out this post “Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden” for some information.

SB231

On Oct 6 2017, SB231 was signed into law in California, making it much easier to fund and build rainwater capture projects. The key is the clarification about whether stormwater projects are subject to the exemption of prop 218:

Excerpts from SB231:

The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:

(a) The ongoing, historic drought has made clear that California must invest in a 21st century water management system capable of effectively meeting the economic, social, and environmental needs of the state.

(b) Sufficient and reliable funding to pay for local water projects is necessary to improve the state’s water infrastructure.

(c) Proposition 218 was approved by the voters at the November 5, 1996, statewide general election. Some court interpretations of the law have constrained important tools that local governments need to manage storm water and drainage runoff.

(d) Storm waters are carried off in storm sewers, and careful management is necessary to ensure adequate state water supplies, especially during drought, and to reduce pollution. But a court decision has found storm water subject to the voter-approval provisions of Proposition 218 that apply to property-related fees, preventing many important projects from being built.

….

(h) Proposition 218 exempts sewer and water services from the voter-approval requirement. Sewer and water services are commonly considered to have a broad reach, encompassing the provision of clean water and then addressing the conveyance and treatment of dirty water, whether that water is rendered unclean by coming into contact with sewage or by flowing over the built-out human environment and becoming urban runoff.

(l) The Legislature reaffirms and reiterates that the definition found in Section 230.5 of the Public Utilities Code is the definition of “sewer” or “sewer service” that should be used in the Proposition 218 Omnibus Implementation Act.

With SB231, it is clear that rainwater capture projects do qualify for the Prop 218 exempts, making them much easier to fund and build.

To summarize, facing the ever increasing demand for water and a future with possibly longer and more frequent drought, we now look at stormwater with a completely new perspective.  Gone are the days when we think of it as a waste; instead we know it is a great asset, and will try to capture and reuse it in a way that will benefit us, and the environment the best.

Birds At an Aquatic Habitat: What Changes Could You See After Storms?

In Santa Clara county where the Silicon Valley is located, Los Gatos Creek is one of the few urban streams that remains relatively intact throughout countless developments in the area during the last 200 years.  The stream originates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, flows into the Vasona Reservoir, winds through a small valley, and clears into the Guadalupe river that finally empties into the San Francisco Bay.  It is one of the many steams and creeks in the vast Guadalupe River watershed, and a habitat for many wetland species.

Los Gatos Creek Map

Watersheds are critical habitats for birds, fishes and other animals that live a wetland environment.  200 years ago, before any of the modern developments, the creek must have been a heaven for the birds and fishes.  At the time, all kinds of birds could be seen flying in the sky and resting in the creek; fishes swimming through the creek in massive numbers.

Unfortunately, in the 200 years since, “about 90% of California’s original aquatic habitat has been altered or destroyed through human activities”, more than any other states in the nation.  What we see in Los Gatos Creek today is one of the 10% that remains.

Los Gatos Creek

Today many of the parks like Los Gatos Creek often provides the only refuge in urban areas for native wetland species.  They have been living here for tens of  thousands of years.   During migration season some species of birds will also come and use the place as a resting area, critical for their survival.  If the park no longer exists, or its environment dramatically changes, it can be devastating for all the birds that have been depending on it for so many years.

Bird sightings at normal time

The birds that can be seen most often are Canadian goose.

Los Gatos Creek

Canada Goose

Great egret and snowy egret can also be seen from time to time.

snowy egret

This was in the migration season of November.  These birds were taking a rest before they flew out to their next destination.

Bird sightings after storms in 2016 winter

After an epic, historic 5 year drought, starting from late fall of 2016, California went from extremely dry to extremely wet, with record breaking rainfalls.   Heavy rains pummeled from late fall all the way  into spring, in some places floods and mudslides occurred.  At Los Gatos creek, parts of the trail were also flooded several times.

Flood

The new “stream” in the previous trail was quickly discovered by some lovely “guests”.  They came in swiftly, playing in this new playground of theirs, relaxing, fishing and enjoying a good meal!

Feeding

Same as these ducks, quite some birds found out the new water and came right in.  Here is normally what you would see when you cross a bridge to enter the trail and look down at the water .  The right side of the creek bed is completely dry.  On the morning after several heavy storms in January, though, the whole span of the creek bed was fully filled with flood water.  On the muddy yellow water you could see these two little birds, guests that were not seen here before.

Creek

Two Birds

They are hooded mergansers.

After you walked a bit more along the trail, there was another surprise waiting.  A Double Crested Cormorant was “relaxing” on a tree, which was never seen here either.  She streatched her wings, turning her head from left to right, right to left, then left to right….with the kind of excitement of a baby.  In the second photo, the two small birds could also be seen swimming in the same place.

Bird

Bird 2

The cormorant really liked it here. In the next 2-3 weeks you can see her swimming, resting and relaxing in this particular spot.

Bird

Bird

Bird

Even more surprises ahead.  After you went further down the creek and came to this spot – Look!  literally a bird’s paradise.  So many birds, of different species, gathered here, rested in this comfy patch made from branches and grasses brought by the flood water.  The patch was right in the middle of the creek, providing the birds all they needed: food, shelter, and a fun place to hang out.  After just one  day, though, the patch was gone, so went all the birds.  Such a view was not seen again.

birds after storm

A great blue heron, and a great egret:

Birds

In the next 2-3 weeks when it continued to rain hard, more birds usually unseen could be found at the creek.

Bird

Bird

2 couples of the mallard duck.  Look at that beautiful blue stripe.

A big group of the American coot, on the flooded trail.  While coots can be seen often, such a big group was only seen during this time.

birds

A big bird was seen here at the tree right beside the trail, towards the end of the rainy season. She really enjoyed the tree and stayed on it for hours, ignoring all the people who passed by on the trail.  She was seen only once.  This is a black-crowned night-heron.

Bird on a tree

Birds, habitat, and water

The heavy rains at Los Gatos Creek gave us a valuable opportunity to observe how a sudden increased level of water would mean for the creek habitat, and the ecosystem.  If we just look at the birds, the answer is clear: they loved all that water.  While we don’t have a count for the birds’ numbers during the storm time, the number of species, and the size of the bird groups we saw, increased quite significantly.  This happened with just 2 months of storms, one could only imagine how it would turn out if the same rains continued for a longer time.

In the last 5 years, when California experienced the epic drought, the birds, and the whole ecosystem at the aquatic habitats must have been very stressed.  They lost a big chunk of their habitat; at the habitats that did remain, water was way more scarce than usual.  As Professor Peter Moyle from University of California, Davis pointed out, “Drought is hard enough on us, and on farmers, and cities, and so forth.  It’s really hard on the fish, really hard on the aquatic and riparian systems.”

Continue with water conservation

Water will just become more scare in the future, relative to our demand for it, with population growth, economic expansion, and climate change.  How can we manage and use it , so that we not only will have enough for ourselves, but also for the birds and fishes in the aquatic and reparian habitats?

While all kinds of solutions are being explored, one thing is clear: we must continue to conserve water,  which is the easiest and cheapest solution among all.  In California, we use half of our water in outdoor landscaping.  If we can all switch to water efficient gardening, we can surely save a significant amount of water.  As we see in the picture, when we save water with drought tolerant plants like these Mexican bush sages, we no only save for us, but also those birds in the creek.

Lake

 

Drinking Water: a Vital Part of Our Life

We all know how important water is to us – drinking, washing, cooking, showering, watering – all part of the things we do with it every day.  Water, and clean drinking water, is essential to all of us.

For most of us, when we turn on the tap, water will flow – it comes so natural that we rarely think about where the water comes from, and how they came here.

To have access to clean drinking water is central part of human activities since the ancient time.  To have such access, sometimes huge infrastructures are built over a vast territory.  The aqueducts in Roman Empire is one of the most distinguished examples.

Roman aqueduct and drinking water

According to “Roman aqueduct” in Wikipedia, “The Romans constructed numerous aqueducts in order to bring water from often distant sources into cities and towns, supplying public baths, latrines, fountains and private households…Rome‘s first aqueduct supplied a water fountain sited at the city’s cattle market. By the 3rd century AD, the city had eleven aqueducts, sustaining a population of over a million in a water-extravagant economy”.

The Roman aqueduct represents one of the greatest engineering achievements in the pre-industrial era.  This is one of the 11 aqueducts in Rome, Nero aqueduct, which was built by the infamous emperor that drew water from Claudia aqueduct and sent to his own palace:

Aqueduct

Thanks to the aqueducts, water is available everywhere in Rome.  It is one such city that you may get around without bringing a bottled water.  These water fountains are everywhere.  They are called “Nasoni”, from the Italian “nasone” (big nose).  The water from it tastes good and is safe to drink.

Drinking Water Fountain 1

California: complex water infrastructures and networks

In California, to support the big population across the state (close to 40 million as of 2015) , there are vast regional and local water systems.  In addition, huge and complex water infrastructures were built to transport water from water abundant areas, e.g., Sierra Nevada snow mountains, to where they are needed, on top of the local supply.  Some of the projects include:

  • Central Valley project, that transports water to the farmlands in central valley; and
  • State water project, that delivers water to Southern California.

In addition to surface water, underground water also plays a vital role, providing some 30-40% of the state’s total water supply, which goes much higher in dry years.

When we have a sip of water from a fountain in the San Francisco Bay area, that water may come from melted snow in Sierra Nevada, and travel hundreds of miles in the vast water network before it arrives in the west coast.  It takes a lot of work and huge projects for the water to be delivered to every corner like it is today.

 

 

Pollution: Drinking Water Problems

One of the most serious problems related to drinking water is pollution.

Bottled water, and the plastics that come along with it, has become a big hazard for our water, especially our ocean and environment.  Americans used about 50 billion water bottles a year, however, only 23% were recycled, that means  77% or 38 billion bottles went into landfill, streams, rivers and eventually ocean.  There they will not dissolve, but break into smaller pieces which will be ingested by sea animals. This is not a good situation.

Another big problem is the chemicals from medicines and personal care products.  After the medicines are dumped into toilet, and the shampoos and sunscreens are used and rinsed off in shower, the chemicals will go into sewage and then wastewater treatment facility.  Though water are treated at the facilities, they are not designed to treat the thousands of chemicals present, which will then be released back to the rivers and oceans.   These pollutants can be hazardous to aquatic animals. An ingredient in sunscreen can harm the coral reefs.  The oceans are so polluted now that the dolphin’s immune systems are failing.

With the huge water cycle in nature, some of the chemicals make their way back and can be found even in treated drinking water, so in the end it can be harmful to our own health too.

2017-04-13-13h18m58

Improve Water Efficiency: Recycle, Reuse

Water is a precious resource needed by everyone. How can we best use such a resource?  As Felicia Marcus, Chairman of California Water Board put it:  “In Southern California and the Bay Area, we have this massive infrastructure to transport water from the mountains, use it once, and then send it out to sea. Instead, we should be capturing more rainwater, recycling it, and reusing it over and over. ”

As Californians learned in the historic 5 year drought, replacing lawns with water efficient gardens can  save water significantly which helped us cope with the drought.  The next step will be to capture and store more of the rainwater, and reuse it.  Use permeable materials in the garden, harvest rain water with a rain barrel, install a rain garden: these are some of the things we can do to further improve the efficiency of our water.

 

Storm Water – Not a Waste But a Valuable Resource of Water (1)

Vasona park and the adjacent Los Gatos Trail is a favorite place for many locals who live in the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay area.  The long trail along the picturesque creek and reservoir provides a perfect place for people to walk, run, or just to relax and enjoy.  In the last couple weeks, though, as like so many other places in Northern California, the heavy storms flooded part of the trail.  The creek turned muddy yellow, roaring downstream at a much faster pace than normal.

Stormwater flooded Los Gatos trail

The creek literally has become a river.  It did not just flow out of the creek banks; in this particular area it flooded the whole place, including the trail, until it was blocked by the higher bank, off which the trail’s parking spaces sit.  The flow was so powerful that it knocked down a pole of the trail’s fence.

Flood at Los Gatos Creek

Fence Pole

Nowhere was the storms’ effect more apparent than at the dam of Vasona Reservoir. Usually the dam gates were closed, the creek tranquil; now the gates are wide open, with a huge volume of muddy storm water tumbling down, making a spectacular fall.

dam before storm

dam after storm

dam after storm

Storm Water Benefit  – Recharge Ground Water

While the heavy storm water did flood part of the trail, the water itself is not a waste; on the contrary, it is a very valuable resource.

One of Los Gatos Creek’s major functions is to recharge ground water. According to the park’s official website:

“Surface water runoff from the watershed that drains into Los Gatos Creek is captured by Lexington Reservoir in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That water is then used to recharge, or refill, the valley’s groundwater basin. Reservoir water is released and carried to recharge ponds via the creek. Water held in the ponds seeps or “percolates” through the earth’s layers until it reaches underground aquifers. This percolation process helps clean the water before it reaches the underground storage basin.

All along Los Gatos Creek you will see groundwater recharge in action. Water released from Lexington Reservoir flows to Vasona Lake where a system of gates at the dam releases water downstream to the percolation ponds at Los Gatos Creek County Park and Budd, Camden, McGlincey, Oka Lane, Page and Sunnyoaks ponds. Ultimately, the creek joins the Guadalupe River and flows northward to San Francisco Bay.”

Here is one of the percolation ponds at the creek:

percolation pond

Ground water is an important source of water for California.  In the last several decades, overpumping has seriously depleted a lot of the ground water, sinking the land across the state.  The historical drought in the last 5 years made the depletion even worse, exacerbating an already severe situation . It is critically important to recharge the ground water, and the storm water this season is badly needed.

Storm Water Benefit  – Water for Trees

Walking along the creek one can see quite some trees toppled in the storm.

tree toppled in a storm

While some trees may simply just be brought down by the force of the wind and flow, for  some other trees, it was the drought – they were so weakened by the time of the storm.

Since 2010, more than 102 million of trees have died in the California forest stressed by drought and infected by beetles, estimated the U.S. Forest Service.   As trees are so vital for the environment,  this is not something anyone would like to see.  The storm water can help quench the thirst of the trees, helping them stay healthy and live much longer.

Storm Water Benefit  – A Richer Habitat for Birds

A happy surprise one would discover walking along the creek was birds rarely seen before.   While some birds, e.g., Canada Geese, Great Egret, and Mallard Ducks  can be seen all the time, a much bigger variety showed up after the storms:

birds after storms

birdafterstorm
Double-crested Cormorant

birdsafterstorm

Like a lot of wetlands in the state, Los Gatos creek was a bird’s paradise a long long time ago, but human activities took away most of the habitat.  The drought just made it much worse for the birds.  Now, with the abundance of water and food brought by the storms, more birds came back.  It is clear that water is essential for the health of wetland’s ecosystem, and storm water plays a big role in it.

Net, from Los Gatos creek, one can see storm water is such a valuable resource.  It can recharge ground water, de-stress the trees, and help provide a habitat for birds.  It is not a waste that should be flown out to the ocean as soon as possible; rather, it is something that should be captured, stored and reused, so we can achieve a much higher efficiency for the water we get.