Alhambra is officially restricting residents to watering their lawns twice a week. As of Aug. 1, residents are limited to a self-regulated watering schedule of once every three days before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Restrictions not withstanding, property maintenance codes mandate that "residents who leave their lawn and landscaping to become dry and turn brown, and subsequently die, are at risk of receiving a Code Enforcement violation notice."
Landscaping professionals and residents say watering on this restricted schedule and maintaining a green lawn is difficult. “It’s really tough to maintain a green lawn by watering twice a week,” said the owner of Mirage Gardens, Ray Pomposo, who has 11 years of experience landscaping in the Los Angeles area. Pomposo said that adding absorbent polymers to retain moisture is the only measure he could think of to keep a lawn green under these conditions.
Alhambra resident Karen Rangle, who was playing with her child in Alhambra Park on Monday, said that the weather conditions dry her lawn quickly and watering twice a week is having an impact. “It’s a little hard because it gets dryer but I understand we have to save water,” she said. “I try to water the dry and brown patches every third day but those patches are hard to maintain.”
The city's water shortage plan is a response to California's severe drought and a state mandate to conserve water. City officials say they realize there are challenges to requiring residents to keep their lawns alive with limited water usage. “We know it might be difficult but we are really asking residents to do their part as well to help conserve while still preserve the aesthetics," Director of Administrative Services Chris Paulson said during the July 28 City Council meeting. But, he continued, Alhambra Municipal Code requires residents to keep their lawns green, and “dead, dry, and brown lawns are against the municipal code.”
“The goal isn’t to punish anyone,” Paulson said in an interview, noting Alhambra Code Enforcement may warn and send notices to residents before issuing any fines. “It’s to preserve the attractiveness of the front yard landscaping while at the same time conserving water. It’s not an ‘either or,’ it’s to do both.”
Existing city employees will be in charge of water conservation enforcement, according to City Manager Mary Swink. All field personnel will be trained to look for violations and drive through the city. The four field officers each have 10 or more years of experience and are able to discern what is unacceptable, said Paulson. Paulson stressed the need for balance, adding that homeowners must maintain their lawns given the circumstances of the drought. “If some homeowner wants to let their lawn go to complete dirt then that won’t be tolerated,” he said.
For some residents, though, not only is following the rules and keeping grass green a challenge, the new system itself is confusing. At the July 28 City Council meeting, Alhambra resident Yolanda Dunchak charged that the self-regulating watering once every three days is inefficient, noting each week residents would be expected to water on a different day. Dunchak criticized the city for requiring residents to water two days a week without specifying which days, as Los Angeles does, arguing that the system is hard to remember.
“It didn’t hit us immediately that every three days would be a foolish attempt in having Alhambra citizens comply with a system — that we would have to check the calendar to water," Dunchak said. “I still would prefer a schedule that I know as easily as knowing when my trash will be picked up.”
Other residents advocated that the city should not only limit watering, but support residents in their efforts to conserve water. Linda Trevillian said in a comment on Alhambra Source that she is “disappointed” the city “has not followed the actions of other cities that are rewarding citizens for removing lawns and replacing them with cacti, succulents, most of which have beautiful blooms, and other sustainable plants.” The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is offering residents three dollars per square foot for replacing their lawn with water efficient landscaping, as well as other water conservation incentives.
Although the city of Alhambra does not offer incentives for residents to plant drought-resistant lawns, Paulson said converting a lawn to use less water is a possibility. While dead grass is a violation, there are lower-water alternatives accepted by the city. No-water landscaping such as decorative stone, brick, or gravel may occupy half of a homeowner’s front yard and the other half must be live vegetation. “If a homeowner wants to be proactive they can just do it. They might get a notice but once a communication channel is established, it’s very easy to work with code enforcement,” Paulson said, adding that it is only the serious violators whom code enforcement will be targeting. “Code enforcement is conscious of the drought and won’t use a heavy hand when enforcing the regulations.”
When Alexis Moreno let her lawn go brown in order to put in drought tolerant plants, she received a warning letter from the city in 2011 saying they had a few weeks to get our lawn green again or they would face a fine of no more than $100 for violating the Alhambra city code § 9.70.050. "We were in violation because we chose not to use the irresponsible amount of water, fertilizer, and chemicals needed to keep the lawn 'thriving,'" she wrote in an Alhambra Source article. Instead, she argued, the city would be better off encouraging behavior like hers.
"The city could offer landscaping classes, rebates for water-use reduction, or replacing the lawn in front of the police station,” Moreno wrote. “For residents, rebates or grants could provide incentives for a total lawn makeover or just reducing the size of the front lawn with some beautiful (low water) border plantings or other features. Alhambra is in a unique position with our own municipal water supply and we should be doing our best to be wise stewards of this precious resource."
Councilman Luis Ayala said during the July 28 meeting that the city should look into incentives for water efficient landscaping. "I think we really need to also include as part of these recommendations resources for people who are interested in making their gardens or lawns water efficient," Ayala said.
Residents can report excessive water usage and water code violations by calling the city's 24-hour code enforcement hotline at 626-570-3230, calling the Utilities Division at 626-570-5061, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Note: Due to an editing error an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that city officials would fine up to $1,000 for brown lawns. This was based upon Alhambra City Code § 23.48.030. A city official, however, said that would not be enforced. The story incorrectly stated that the city would hire a new employee to enforce drought regulations. The story also stated that former Alhambra resident Alexis Moreno had been fined $100 for letting her yard go brown. She had received a warning letter; she had not been fined. We regret the errors.