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Re-thinking green lawns in Alhambra

Eight of the 10 winning Alhambra Beautiful homes this past year had pristine green lawns. One of the winning homes, however, was completely xeriscaped—or covered with landscaping that requires little to no irrigation. When administering the awards during the Oct. 13 Alhambra City Council meeting, Councilwoman Barbara Messina praised the creativity of this home’s landscape, while at the same time admitting she prefers grass.
California is facing a devastating drought, and despite the heavy rains this winter, California still has a long way to go to recover. The Los Angeles Times reported that, according to state water resource officials, “it would take 150% of the average rainfall for California to recover from the current drought.” 
Drought tolerant plants from Michelson's yard | Photo by Melissa Michelson
Conservation efforts have increased statewide, including in Alhambra, where in July 2014 City Council adopted water-saving regulations. But city staff should do much more to encourage drought-friendly landscaping in the city. Staff should incentivize xeriscaping, provide conservation rebates, and award homeowners for their conservation efforts in the Alhambra Beautiful Awards.
The award’s history began in the early 1980s. Alhambra resident Helen Wysong was sending out “Alhambra Unbeautiful” letters, which reminded homeowners that their properties needed upkeep. She also started awarding homeowners for their well-maintained properties. The awards stopped, but Messina revived the Alhambra Beautiful Awards five years ago, with the Chamber of Commerce organizing the annual program. Six judges are charged with selecting the winning homes. Each winner received a certificate and lawn sign, and was selected based on “curb appeal, landscaping design and maintenance, and contribution to the neighborhood’s overall character,” according to the city's website.
Alhambra staff should stop prioritizing aesthetic beauty over water conservation. In July, City Council adopted water-conserving regulations restricting homeowners to watering no more than three times a week. Although these restrictions make maintaining green lawns more difficult, the city website warns that residents who let their lawns turn brown or die may receive a violation notice from Alhambra Code Enforcement. City officials noted in July that they are not looking to fine people but instead are hoping to work with residents to conserve water. But despite the city’s flexibility regarding enforcement, it is still sending a mixed message: Keep watering your lawn within the restrictions and keep it green. Photo by Melissa Michelson
Alhambra could take a stronger stance by both allowing and encouraging residents to completely integrate low or no-water landscaping. Currently, Alhambra homeowners are prohibited from replacing grass with artificial turf, stone, brick, gravel, or bark unless at least half of the lawn is live vegetation. 
Alhambra could also follow in the lead of neighboring cities and incentivize its residents’ conservation efforts. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offers a $3.75 per square foot rebate for the first 1,500 square feet of residential turf replaced with water-wise landscaping. San Marino encourages the use of water-wise landscaping and irrigation systems and also allows some of its city greenery to turn brown to demonstrate its commitment to saving water during the drought. San Marino’s water provider also offers customers rebates for sprinkler controllers, high efficiency nozzles, soil moisture sensors, rain barrels, and grass removal. 
Through the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, Alhambra at most offers a rebate for an irrigation controller for homeowners. To large entities like schools or businesses, the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District offers grants for water-saving landscaping, but not to individual homeowners.  Photo by Melissa Michelson
On March 18 from 7 to 9pm, Alhambra Preservation Group will host an event called "Energy Efficiency and Historic Homes” at the Alhambra Library. One of the scheduled guest speakers is the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants of Sun Valley, which will provide information on drought-tolerant and water-saving gardens. The other speakers at the March 18 event include a window restoration specialist and a home performance contractor that performs energy audits in order to identify areas to lower energy bills and carbon footprints. The event is free. 
Along with Alhambra Preservation Group’s workshop on energy efficiency and water-saving gardening practices, the city’s Alhambra Beautiful Awards is a perfect opportunity to not only encourage water conservation but also award residents who switch to low or no-water landscaping. Residents who prioritize water conservation over aesthetic beauty deserve to be honored, not only for their creativity but also for their ecological role in saving water for California. It is time for the city to make a strong and clear commitment to water conservation by integrating more xeriscaped homes into the awards next year and offering rebates to residents that do.
Melissa Michelson sits on the Board of Directors for Alhambra Preservation Group.

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