The High Cost of Cheap Water


I just realized that I graduated from College almost a quarter of a century ago. When I was in school the importance of saving water was pounded into our head like a faint constant drum beat. So many classes and so much information with a constant thread of the importance of learning to live within our means with water. The most relevant sustainable issue in Southern California was water conservation. The most important one for a growing global society was energy. I felt like we were going to be the ones that changed it all.

Its 25 years later and so little has changed. Last night on the news they said we are at 38% of our yearly average rainfall totals and I thought to myself rarely does it rain past April 15th. We have been in a drought so long it isn't really a drought anymore - it is just a new normal. We seem to be insulated from reality. The infrastructure in place bringing water from 7 states away along with from the northern part of our own state protect us from what is really going on at home.

Here are a few facts. 

  • 22% of the total energy used in Southern California is spent bringing water to our taps.
  • Of the water we use at home 60% at least is used outside.
  • Of that 60% half of it is wasted (1/3 of all the water we use) and some becomes run-off
  • Residential runoff from over watering is the biggest contributor to local costal pollution
  • Of the total square footage in our outdoor spaces 70% is covered with lawn.
  • A lawn needs 48" of water per year to keep it alive which is 4 times our yearly rainfall of 12"

These facts alone I feel need to be shouted from the rooftops. The problems get more complicated when we talk about agriculture and the 80% of that imported water that it uses to grow food in a desert. Water agencies and how water is purchased and priced is still foreign to me. All I can focus on as I try to learn these things is how I can affect change at home and at school through our curriculum.  How we can focus on that 30% of wasted water. How we can replace lawns with growing food or a "California Friendly Landscape" using Mediterranean plant material. How a landscape using cactus and succulents can be one of the most colorful and interesting landscape choices out there. I can make sure my students understand the importance of an irrigation system that uses the incredibly accurate science available in irrigation technology to put on just the right amount of water on that plant and no more. 

The concept of the 2 pictures above was stolen from the lecture of a local water expert on his slide presentation he gave to one of our classes. I think it speaks volumes. The picture on the left is water being pumped over the mountain range into the LA basin over 4,000 feet. The second is the wasted water as run-off running down the street to the ocean. The water traveled so far using so much energy to be wasted in a place that can't afford to waste.

I guess I can keep beating that familiar drum.



A Topped Tree: "A Billboard of Ignorance”

On my daily walk I’m often struck by an apparent disconnect between a property owner’s understanding of the relationship between their property value and the health of its trees. The 3 million dollar home in the photo above has been devalued due to the severe topping practice on its trees. The homeowners clearly don’t realize what they have done to the health of the trees, the safety of their outdoor spaces, the aesthetics of the street scene for their neighbors, and the overall value of their property.

I want to go up to their door, ring the bell and unleash a torrent of facts, literature, and advice, but I have long since learned that Information is only well received when it is sought out. I would probably be perceived as an intrusive busybody. No one wants to be told they are doing something wrong. Still, a sight like this gives me severe anguish, and I often walk away muttering to myself.

When lecturing on tree care, I try to simplify topping down to 3 main points for my students:

Tree Topping is Ugly. This is hard to deny and immediately clear to people, even if they know nothing about tree care. Topping is permanent for the rest of a tree’s life. That tree will never have a structure that looks natural, and the effects of the damage will never be resolved or reversed. Even though a new flush of water sprouts will hide some of the damage with greenery, the severe stubs left behind will always be visible, especially on a deciduous tree when it loses its leaves in the Fall.

Tree Topping is Expensive. After being topped, a tree uses its stored reserves to produce water sprouts which are fast growing vertical stems much different than the tree’s natural growth. This thick, bushy growth will require a new kind of maintenance. Instead of a branch that forks into 2 or 3 smaller branches, we now have a stub that is shooting 20 or more water sprouts from the topping cut. This new rapid new growth forces the owner into a frequent pruning regimen to control.  Now the homeowner will be up for a cycle of regular yearly visits. A  much more expensive program is now in place.  And the trees will still be ugly! 

Tree Topping is Dangerous. This fact stops most naysayers when the other two reasons fail to convince. Two things happen when a branch is topped: the water sprouts grow out from the live wood of the stem which is the outer most ring of that branch. This new growth comes from the cambium layer. This means the vigorous water sprouts are connected to an extremely small layer of live wood just below the bark. Second, the rest of the wood of that topped branch or stub is exposed to disease, and subsequent decay starts to rot down inside the stem. This means the vigorous, straight, weakly attached water sprouts are on a stub that is rotting in the center. Initially, the decay is not apparent because it is high up in the tree branches.

3-4 Year old water sprouts surrounding a rotting topped branch

Topping begins the perfect storm. These water sprouts are prone to coming down in a wind, causing damage to people and property. 


The first impressions of a house is tightly connected to the trees in its front yard.  I’ve heard many claims from prospective home buyers that it was the trees that finally sold the house. Part of my job as an arborist is to assess and place value on trees. In some cases values can rise from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. This value can be attached to a property’s value. Topping a tree creates something ugly, expensive to control, and a potential liability for the homeowner.  It also reduces potential property value.  The only one who benefits from tree topping is the guy that charges a client anually to do this “work.”



The Hidden Costs of Cheap Gardening

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, there was only one gardener in our whole neighborhood. As kids we would stop and watch him with interest, having never seen a real gardener before. Only people with wealth could afford to have their yards professionally cared for. For most of us, if yard work needed to be done, we’d spend Saturdays doing it ourselves. 

Times have changed. I challenge my students to drive a mile without seeing at least one gardening truck. Did we all get wealthy in the last thirty years? Are we too busy to spend Saturdays doing yard work? The more likely story is that gardening is cheap labor today. In my estimation, over 90% of residential households pay a gardener. 

I don’t think this means that most homeowners don’t care about their yards. I think that they aren’t getting great value for the money they spend on inexpensive gardening. Spending more for a landscaping service is the wisest investment a homeowner can make in their outdoor spaces. Consider this:

  • 75% of the cost of an average landscape over its lifetime is in its maintenance.
  • The vast majority of high maintenance costs are a result of someone planting the wrong plant in the wrong spot.
  • Even though we live in a “Desert”, most of our plants in our landscapes are suffering from maladies caused by overwatering.
  • A beautifully-placed and pruned tree in a front yard can add tens of thousands of dollars to the value of a home.
  • A well-designed irrigation system can be the best caregiver and insurer of long-term success of an outdoor space.

The higher-priced bid is priced higher for a reason; the knowledge, experience, education, and passion of a landscaper will save a great deal of money in the long run.