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New California landscape ordinance conserves water, promotes sustainability

Photo Courtesy Of Astrid Gaiser A healthy garden that is water-wise and sustainable reduces herbicide and pesticide use and avoids water waste.


It’s here and it’s here to stay. Since Jan. 1, a new Water-Efficient Landscape Ordinance is in effect for the state of California.

Depending on your community, the ordinance’s wording, regulations and enforcement vary slightly, but all versions have a common set of goals that landscape professionals and environmentally conscious homeowners applaud. Following are a few benefits of the ordinance.

•Water-efficient landscapes will stretch limited water supplies. A total of 50 to 70 percent of drinking water is used to irrigate gardens, with much of it going to thirsty lawns. Reducing your garden’s water needs is the best way to conserve water in California’s drought years.

•Reduced irrigation runoff. Avoiding irrigation runoff from overspray and misting will reduce the pollution of waterways and lead to less property damage.

•Less green waste. Reducing watering means less green waste. Many plants that are generously watered react with growth spurts, which in turn leads to more pruning. Limiting the watering to a reasonable amount saves green waste and – even better – manual labor. Get your Saturday afternoons back and save money at the same time.

•Increased drought resistance. Water-wise gardens will survive even if the state confronts serious drought conditions. Lawns will not. A waterwise garden can look as beautiful and lush as any other garden.

•Smaller carbon footprint. A low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, sustainable garden has a much smaller carbon footprint than a garden that needs to bring in large quantities of fertilizer, mulch or annuals or cart out green waste. Stick with perennial native or Mediterranean plants, compost green waste and use compost as a mulch to feed and protect plants.

Most water districts offer additional incentives to convert to a more water-wise landscape. The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers landscape rebate programs ( to replace irrigation and even entire landscapes.

Santa Clara County single-family homes, multifamily homes and business properties with 5,000 square feet or more of irrigated landscape are eligible for rebates for replacing high-water-using plants – such as irrigated turf grass – with low-water-using plants from an approved plant list and/or permeable hardscape. Single-family homes are eligible for up $2,000, and multifamily homes/business properties for up to $20,000.

The Water-Efficient Landscape Ordinance is designed to give cities, counties and other agencies tools to understand and predict the water-use of a property. Tools include a water-budget calculator; landscape, irrigation, grading and drainage plans; and soil tests to help homeowners plan and understand the needs of their landscapes.

The requirements for calculations and plans may sound intimidating, so many municipalities are considering moving to easier models with simplified checklists that ask homeowners questions such as how much lawn they have on their property, and how much of their planting area is planted with drought-tolerant plants like California natives or Mediterranean plants.

David Kornfield, planning services manager for the city of Los Altos, said Los Altos has adopted the state’s model ordinance, but officials are considering moving toward an easier checklist.

According to the state’s model ordinance, new homeowner-provided landscapes with an irrigated area of more than 5,000 square feet as well as existing landscapes larger than 1 acre are subject to its provisions. Kornfield said that Los Altos applies the ordinance to required landscape areas only. In single-family districts, the required landscape area includes the front yard and privacy screening, which is generally below the 5,000-square-foot threshold to apply the water-efficient landscape regulations.

This means that if you live in Los Altos, you are still generally free to do with your yard as you wish – but check with the city before you build a new landscape, as retaining walls and garden structures such as trellises often require building permits.

And even though it’s not required, why not build a water-wise, sustainable garden. You will save time, money and the environment at the same time.

Astrid Gaiser is a landscape designer, horticulturist and Certified Green Building Professional. She specializes in drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, sustainable gardens designed for outdoor living. For more information, call 224-2895, visit or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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