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New Landscaping Regulations Mandate Water Conservation

New Landscaping Regulations Mandate Water Conservation
California cities were mandated by the state to have new water landscaping regulations in place by January 1. 2010. We discuss what these new regulations entail, what effect they will have on the state's water usage and which San Diego communities are in compliance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The use of drought-resistant, water saving landscaping has been slowly increasing even here in green-lawn-loving San Diego. But the movement to encourage use of water saving plants is about to undergo a sea change. A new ordinance in San Diego County now requires that landscaping for new construction in some areas be done by a state-licensed landscape architect. The requirements went into effect on January 1st of this year. They are aimed at conserving water and reducing the risk of fire. Joining me to talk about San Diego County’s landscape ordinance are my guests. Alison St John, KPBS News. Hi, Alison.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Glenn Schmidt, president of the landscaping firm Schmidt Design Group, Incorporated. Glenn, welcome to These Days.


GLENN SCHMIDT (Landscape Architect): Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, Alison. You’ve covered the announcement of these new landscaping regulations for KPBS. How did they originally come about? Was it through state legislation?

ST JOHN: That’s correct. And, in fact, it was back in 2006 that the state passed a law, AB-1881, saying that these new restrictions on water use in new developments be put into place in the beginning of this year, 2010. And so the fact that there was like four years between the time they passed the law and the time that it went into effect kind of shows you that there were a lot of issues to resolve. And, in fact, the state was quite late in developing its model ordinance. It was supposed to develop one back at the beginning of last year to give everybody else a whole year to sort of look at those model ordinance suggestions and come up with their own variations but they didn’t even get it together until September of last year. So it’s a little bit of a scramble and only eight of the 18 cities in San Diego have actually passed their own versions of this ordinance. The County just passed theirs. That was the issue that I covered. But there’s still quite a few cities in the county that are working on their ordinance.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so while some of the cities work on their ordinances, and of course they wouldn’t do anything easy like having all the same ones…

ST JOHN: Right, right, right.


CAVANAUGH: …let’s concentrate on what the County has passed. What exactly are the new landscaping regulations in San Diego County? Who’s affected? What does it apply to?

ST JOHN: I think we should probably, for the details of the County ordinance, refer to your other guest here today, Glenn Schmidt, who’s worked on it a lot. But, generally speaking, it applies to new commercial developments over 5,000 square feet. It’s designed to save about 30% of water on landscaping, and when you think about the fact that we’re entering a period where we could be in a water crisis and 60% of the water that we use goes to landscaping, this makes a lot of sense. And, you know, we’ve heard about the fact that, for example, some new developments, for example, Merriam Mountain up there on 15, people are saying we can’t be building more houses, we’ve already been told to cut back on our water. This landscape ordinance is a way to say, okay, if you’re going to develop more housing or commercial developments, you have to have much more efficient – water efficient landscaping.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Glenn, more about the specifics but first I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions about whether the new landscaping requirements affect you or about planting low-water use landscaping at your home, give us a call with your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Okay, so, Glenn, these new landscaping requirements, do they require that you plant certain kinds of plants?



SCHMIDT: And what’s – Actually, a great thing about these new requirements is that for the first time we’ve had something to – a measure of what is a drought tolerant landscape. Before, we, you know, we really didn’t know. Now, we actually have what they call a maximum applied water use, which is basically a water budget so now we’re designing our landscapes to a certain level of water use and we can do that how ever we want and we can use high-water use plants. But we have to also include a lot of low-water use plants to make sure we don’t go over our water budget.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. So, okay, so in other words, if you wanted to make a tiny, tiny little landscape for your place that had a high-use water plant, you could still do that.

SCHMIDT: Yes, in fact, to comply, just to give you an idea, we can still use high-water use plants about – over about 10% of a landscape.


SCHMIDT: And then maybe about 25% can be your typical moderate-water use plants. But then the rest will have to be low and very low-water use plants.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as Alison alluded to, you were on this group. You were on the San Diego County Water Authority, the work group that came up with this ordinance. Who else was in the group? Who was represented when this ordinance was created?

SCHMIDT: Well, we have a quite large group and it’s part of the Conservation Action Committee which includes about 300 professionals, and public and private, interested in making positive changes toward water conservation in our region. We had a separate work group. As you mentioned the state didn’t come out with their guidelines until very late, so here in the county we were trying to help the various cities work on something that made sense but was also consistent, and so we came out with a regional model. And that regional model has been used by most of the cities so far, but each of them have their own unique little elements and they’ve added their personality to it or included perhaps a little higher or lower requirements depending on their area. For example, the City of San Diego has no restrictions toward single family homes at all. They’ve exempted all single family homes. Whereas in the County, as you mentioned, if you have a single family home over 5,000 square feet and you–this is for new development, remember…


SCHMIDT: …these are not existing homes—then you will have to comply with the full requirements. But also in commercial, by the way, in the County it’s 1,000 square feet is the threshold for a commercial project.

ST JOHN: One of the things I was trying to figure out here was what – can you help us visualize what 1,000 or 5,000 square feet looks like?

SCHMIDT: Well, a typical single family home in a suburban location is about a 50 by 100 foot lot, so that’s a 5,000 square foot lot. So this would not comply – or, apply, excuse me, to a typical single family home because the amount of landscape area, you can imagine, is maybe about 30 or 40% of that at the most, right? So a 5,000 square foot area of landscape is a pretty large lot.

ST JOHN: But I did see that the state model ordinance says that existing single family homes that are an acre or more are included in their model ordinance, which means if your city hasn’t passed an ordinance, you are now currently officially under the state guidelines and you should be looking at cutting your water use in your landscape, I guess, by 30% if you have a really big lot.

SCHMIDT: Well, I think we all need to be water conserving in our landscapes in general but I wouldn’t panic and think that if you have a single family home with a large lot that the folks are going to be coming knocking on your door. Really, this is meant for new development predominantly and most of the cities that are establishing their new requirements are not going after existing multi-family or single family projects over that one acre threshold. That’s a pretty tough ticket, you know, tough goal for them to try and accomplish and they’re not going after that. I don’t think that’s a big issue.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls about the new landscape requirements that are in effect in San Diego County and in the cities throughout the county, 1-888-895-5727. And my guests are Alison St. John and Glenn Schmidt, who’s president of the landscaping firm Schmidt Design Group, Incorporated, and was also in the work group that came up with the ordinance for San Diego County. And, Glenn, what are the consequences? I mean, what is the procedure when you – You have to apply for a permit and then contract with a state licensed landscape architect, is that the way it works?

SCHMIDT: Well, actually the state had certain guidelines for who can submit these packages and it’s called a landscape submittal package. And it’s not really that different than what we’ve been doing for many, many years on the commercial side. Every city in our county has a permit requirement and that includes submittals of planting and irrigation plans, also construction plans and grading plans and all these various aspects of a building permit. So for us on the commercial side, it’s really not that different, it’s more of the depth of the calculations that are required and the complexity of the submittal. I should also mention that they include a soil management plan, which is a really good part of this, which is that keeping your soils healthy is a big part of conserving water. And in terms of who can submit, actually the state really relies on the state licensing requirements and actually a licensed landscape architect, architect or civil engineer can submit these drawings in any of the cities in San Diego County and many of the cities are allowing others. For example, in the County, landscape contractors can submit if they are also going to install the project, and they have to have a signed agreement showing that they’re going to also install the project. So – And then other cities are saying that a – and other professionals trained to provide these kind of services, so it’s not quite as exclusive to landscape architects as you mentioned.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a person who’s calling in who’s a very well known person to These Days and she’s our gardening expert, Nan Sterman, landscape designer and creator of the website PlantSoup. Nan, welcome.

NAN STERMAN (Landscape Designer, KPBS Gardening Expert): Hi. Thank you. Hi, Glenn.


CAVANAUGH: Now you are, as I say, a landscape designer. I understand you agree, of course, completely with the concept of, you know, saving water through the use of landscaping but you do have some concerns about the County’s version of the regulations. And could you tell us what those are?

STERMAN: Sure. First of all, let me just say that I have been reviewing the County’s plan for quite a while and Dixie Switzer, who’s my contact there, and her staff has been doing an excellent job. I think this is a very, very important thing to do. I have a couple of concerns and one of them, you were just sort of referring to a few minutes ago. The people now who are allowed to submit these kinds of plans, the landscape submittal package that Glenn was talking about, are civil engineers, landscape architects, architects and the contractors who are going to be creating those projects or installing those projects. We have a huge cadre of landscape designers like myself who are not required to be licensed but who have been working in this area and making huge strides in moving our landscape towards low-water landscape who are not going to be included in that group of people who can submit those packages because we are not required to be licensed. And that really, I think, is an oversight because we do much of this work, not the commercial so much but definitely the residential and we could easily be taught to do the kinds of calculations that are required to do this, some – some of us already know how to do them. But we have four colleges in our community turning out landscape designers on a regular basis and there’s no place for us in this new schema so I’m concerned about our business not – being compromised when it really needs to be encouraged because we are people who make a huge difference in this arena.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me get a reaction from Glenn. Glenn, what do you think about Nan’s comments?

SCHMIDT: Well, a lot of well-trained and very talented landscape designers in San Diego County, and I don’t think the County’s ordinance really restricts them. For example, a single family home – and usually—and correct me if I’m wrong, Nan—I think most of the work that these landscape designers do is in the residential area, single family homes?

STERMAN: Yes, it is.

SCHMIDT: And in single family homes in the county between 1,000 square feet of landscape area and 5,000, all you have to do is submit a one-page form and that takes about five minutes to fill out and it can be handed over the counter by the owner. So this really doesn’t restrict the landscape designers from being involved at all, I don’t think. Now…


SCHMIDT: …once you get over 5,000 square feet then it would have – the landscape designer would have to have a partnership with a licensed landscape contractor to work on finalizing the plans, citing them, and submitting them. But a larger project really should have a licensed professional involved anyway from my perspective.

CAVANAUGH: And, Nan, do you think this is going to drive up the costs? Is that one of your concerns?

STERMAN: Yeah, that is one of my concerns. It’s going to drive up the costs and actually many of us do projects, especially county projects, that are larger than 5,000 square feet of landscape area. In the cities, it’s true and, in fact, my understanding is that’s part of why the City of San Diego dropped the residential requirement from their ordinance. But outside the cities, there are larger properties and it will drive up the cost. And the other thing is, especially working – when you’re working in an HOA for new construction, there’s usually a very limited amount of time that you have to get your landscape installed. So those people are also going to be under big time constraints in a time when county planning is trying to learn a whole new process that’s going to take a while for them to learn. So there’s time issues, there’s cost issues, and there’s also the issue of being able to take the lead in a project and when there’s a problem if you are working with someone who is, for example, a civil engineer or whatever and there are questions about plants and planting, those people are not going to be able to answer those questions.

CAVANAUGH: Nan, I’d like you….

STERMAN: So I have a lot of concerns.

CAVANAUGH: Nan, I’d like you to address another one of your concerns about this new ordinance and that is the state manual that cities and counties are using for reference. What do you see as a problem with that manual?

STERMAN: It’s not the manual itself. And, again, I don’t want people to think I’m not supporting this. I think this is an extremely important move forward. We absolutely have to be conserving water. We need to be pushing people to do more and to be more aware of it in their properties, etcetera, etcetera, especially as we move forward. The issues, as I see it, and these are not ones that the county can solve on its own, is the manual supports the implementation of the ordinance and the – there are a list of plants that are being used as reference. So if you’re going to take your plan in to the county, to the planning department and submit it along with a list of low-water plants or whatever plants you’re going to be using, they’re going – it’s going to be judged based on a list called the WUCOLS List, which is Water Use – Oh, gosh, Glenn, help me here. I’ve got it. It’s the – the…

SCHMIDT: Water Use Characteristics Of Landscape Species.

STERMAN: Thank you. We always call it the WUCOLS List and I always – so that’s, in my mind, that’s what it is. And it – what it does is, it evaluates the amount of water used by different common landscape plants. It’s an excellent list. The problem is it is now more than ten years old. So while many, many, many very useful, very important low water plants have come onto the market in the last ten years, they’re not on that list.


STERMAN: So when you take your plans in, how is the planner going to evaluate the plants that he or she doesn’t have a reference for?

CAVANAUGH: We will talk more about this, and more about this when you’re in the studio. The cell phone is a little hard to understand so, Nan, thank you so much for calling in. Let me get a reaction from you, Glenn, about the concern about the plants in the manual and that perhaps they’re out of date or they’re not really the best ones that could be in that.

SCHMIDT: Well, the list that Nan was referring to, the WUCOLS List, has been published by Department of Water Resources through the UC Cooperative Extension and this – There is money being put toward new research but right now, scientific data is limited to mostly turf grass species so we know exactly how much water the turf grass use, the warm season turf, the warm – or cool season turf. But in the shrubs and ground covers and trees, we have less information. So what the Department of Water Resources did is they published this document and you can get it at, by the way, and just put in WUCOLS, W-U-C-O-L-S, and it’s a great document. It actually has 1400 plant species and it lists them by their water use characteristics, whether it be very low, low, moderate or high. And – But it’s anecdotal, it’s not scientific. They surveyed many, many different professionals to come up with that, so it’s not a perfect document. We really do need more scientific data for the trees, shrubs and ground covers, but it’s a good start. And what I’m encouraged with all of this is that I see the nurseries beginning to retool themselves. They’re coming up with new species. They’re brining in species from Mediterranean parts of the world that are just beautiful and lush and tropical looking because people like that look, right?


SCHMIDT: But we don’t have to sacrifice the color, the vibrance, and the beauty of our landscapes to comply with these standards. And I think that’s what we’re going to see in the end. We do have a hole in terms of the data but this water budget that we’re looking at is flexible enough, I think, that it allows some level of interpretation. We have highly qualified people at the county that are going to be reviewing this, and they’ve been part of this process too so they know the limitations of that list. So when they have the professional coming in, they’ll – we’ll be able to show them where that plant lives, what part of the world it is native to and match that to our environment, so I don’t think it’s going to be a real, real significant problem.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls on the new landscape requirements in San Diego County for some areas and new construction, new commercial construction, so we’re going to have to be very precise on this. The number’s 1-888-895-5727. And George is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, George. Welcome to These Days.

GEORGE (Caller, Carlsbad): Morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can…

GEORGE: I live in Carlsbad. I’m the president of an HOA and we’ve decided, being proactive, to put smart meters in that are read by computers so it controls our water use. Can you – Are you hearing me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, we are.

GEORGE: Okay. So we estimated it would cost us about $10,000 and – but we could get a $5,000 grant. So we applied for the grant and at the same time we put the meters in because they wanted to get started. And then they turned us down because we’d already put the meters in.


GEORGE: Raw deal. I just wanted to warn people.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, George. One of the learning curves that’s going to be involved in the whole idea of changing our – the way we use water here in San Diego County. What about smart meters. Is that going to help us learn how much water these plants actually use?

SCHMIDT: Well, one of the greatest, I think, technological advances has been the weather-based irrigation controllers, and I think that’s what he’s referring to. And those are the clocks that determine how much our irrigation goes on and off during the night and they’re based on weather conditions. Before, it was – a person would set it and it would stay running that length of time until somebody came back and changed it. Now, these new clocks, you can set them and they actually have a little mini-weather station involved and they will change the amount of water that they apply to landscape based on changing weather conditions. And that’s a great new advancement and one of the requirements of these landscape standards so that we will have these new, more smart clocks on our new landscapes in the future.

CAVANAUGH: You know, a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about is very specialized and, you know, you can do it here and not there and in this city and not that, you know, and it’s – it doesn’t really apply to too many people right now. But I’m wondering if I could get both of your comments on the kind of change that this really does signify coming down the road because when the county says – requires a different kind of landscaping or a landscaping that uses this much water and no more, we can see that things are really changing here in San Diego County and around California when it comes to water conservation.

ST JOHN: Well, I guess one of the things I would say is just that it is – it’s interesting that the new developments are the ones that are taking the brunt of this to begin with. And I think the BIA had originally hoped that existing homeowners might be the—the Building Industry Association—might be the ones to bear the brunt of this landscape new restrictions sooner. But as it is, it’s going to be the new developments. Now that means that as we drive around the county and see new developments and see the landscapes as they grow up, we’re going to start getting a different concept about what an appropriate landscape for Southern California is. And I think they’re hoping that will kind of overflow into existing gardens. And I guess Nan Sterman’s concern about, you know, this list of the possible plants you can use being ten years old and it doesn’t include all these new and exciting plants that are out there is one of the concerns because if you’re using these new developments as models for an appropriate landscape, you really want to have the full gamut of plants there. And one other thing I wanted to mention is that apparently there’s going to be some kind of new – Where is this? Oh, the State Building Standards Commission is going to be looking at how to sanction gray water systems for single family homes, which is not included in most of these landscape ordinances, although Lemon Grove’s, I believe, does say they’ve incorporated use of gray water in domestic houses as sort of one of the things they want to encourage which seems to me very forward looking. So this is sort of part of a constellation of new government, you know, suggestions and regulations that are going to start to gradually change, I think, you know, our idea of what an appropriate landscape is in this area.

CAVANAUGH: And Greg (sic), once we get out of discussions of the nuts and bolts of this particular ordinance, do you see it, too, as a first step towards a new way of looking at the way San Diego looks?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think we’ve been borrowing landscapes from around the world for way too long, and it’s time that we create more of a San Diego style of landscape and this is really what this is about, is creating a landscape that’s a little more arid, a little more appropriate for our region but it doesn’t mean that it’s cactus gardens and that’s what people, I think, are afraid of.

CAVANAUGH: It’s not Arizona, right?

SCHMIDT: It’s not the gravel and the, you know, really hard-looking thorny cactuses. There’s some wonderful, beautiful plants that will meet the guidelines of this ordinance and provide us color and fragrance and variation throughout the seasons. Probably what you’ll see, just to simplify, is you’ll probably see less lawn. The cool season grass, turf grass, that we’ve used throughout our region is kind of our poster child for high water use. And so you’re seeing people removing lawns from their front yards and so forth. You’ll see that more in the commercial area as well. You’ll see a lot less turf grass used for pure decoration purposes. That doesn’t mean that we should eliminate it in recreation areas though. We should make mention of that. By the way, though, Scott Malloy from the Building Industry Association was my co-chair on the committee that developed these standards for the region. They actually have been very, very supportive and have been part of the leadership in creating these new standards so I don’t think they’re afraid of it at all. They see it as a good solution for our region.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Greg (sic), we’ve talked…

SCHMIDT: It’s Glenn. Glenn.

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Glenn. Let me ask you that we talk about this being an ordinance, a requirement, is there any teeth to it? I mean, what are the penalties for people who don’t comply?

SCHMIDT: Well, in order to receive your building permit, you have to comply with these standards and that will be checked by the folks at the county or the individual cities, wherever you’re applying. There’s also a requirement that the professional that submitted this drawings has to go to the site and verify that it’s been installed and in accordance with these requirements and also we’re including maintenance standards in – as part of the package. There’s a lot of follow-up, but it’s mostly through that building permit process. Once it’s turned over and the owner begins watering that landscape, it’s really – the water is coming from the water purveyor, their retail water agency, and so there’s a little of a disconnect there because some of the retail water agencies are different than the permitters for building but we’re seeing that come together more, too. So and the water agencies throughout the county are doing great at supporting this.

CAVANAUGH: We’re out of time. I want to thank my guests so much. Thank you so much Glenn Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Design Group, and Alison St John, of course, from KPBS News. And you have been listening to These Days on KPBS.