Starting December 1, turfgrass and other thirsty plants will be effectively limited to 25 percent of the yard in new residential landscapes of 500 square feet or more and yards of 2,500 square feet or more undergoing renovations that require a permit, plan check or design review. Landscapes of less than 2,500 square feet have the option of complying with a prescriptive checklist to meet the restrictions.
The new rules are a change from existing restrictions, which allow 33 percent of the landscape to contain high-water-use plants and apply only to landscapes of 2,500 square feet or more. State officials say the new restrictions mean landscapes will consume up to one-third less water on average. “Revising the ordinance was well due. We’re moving in the direction Californians would like to move,” says Vicki Lake, program manager at the state Department of Water Resources. “Our landscapes have to be just as resilient as our climate.”
“More and more I’m drawn to naturalistic designs — where land form, stone, light are more impactful than the plant material in the overall composition — and to modern, streamlined, simple spaces where plants are used as sculpture,” she says.
The new rules also apply to commercial landscapes. New lawn may be installed in those only when it will be used for a specific purpose — recreation, picnicking, public gathering — or irrigated with recycled water.
Landscapes of less than 2,500 square feet will have the option of meeting a prescribed checklist of features rather than adhering to a water allowance. Additionally, landscapes of less than 2,500 square feet watered entirely by greywater or captured rainwater may follow an irrigation checklist rather than be subject to the entire ordinance.
The state water board adjusted the proposal to allow the checklist option after a comment period in which the California Landscape Contractors Association and others voiced concerns that the water-allowance model was too complicated for smaller residential landscapes to follow.
“I thought they did a good job of listening,” says the association’s Larry Rohlfes. ”It just makes more sense.”
The water commission sees these updates as regulating what has already become a standard in California, as many residents have been reducing their lawns on their own. “The community is saving water, but at the same time they are seeing new developments go in, with the high water use associated with those,” Lake says.
California’s landscape designers have been cutting back on water consumption in their own projects as well. The San Diego chapter of the Association of Landscape Architects distributed a position paper in 2009 outlining and encouraging the adoption of policies and practices relating to water conservation and the value of regionally appropriate landscapes.