Preparing for Extraordinary Drought
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Steven Hightower
Despite double-average rains in February, and several inches through most of March, water supplies are still perilously low. Although Lake Sonoma may be near full, the Sonoma County Water Agency can deliver only 5,000 acre-feet a month down Dry Creek and into the Russian River without harming fish habitat, and that's 70 percent of normal, requiring about 30 percent conservation. This gap is normally met from Lake Mendocino, which this year is critically low, (still under half full), and its water will not be available south of Healdsburg this summer.
Chris DeGabriele, general manager of the Northern Marin Water District, was recently quoted as saying “That Lake Mendocino might fill is unlikely. We are in March and it is half of what it was last year, when we had 15 percent conservation,” and added “We are in a drought, we need to respond accordingly.”
And, with the sister ‘d’ of depression on us, the cost of water is expected to be correspondingly higher as well--as much as 20 percent in Santa Rosa, and 29 percent in Sonoma Valley. That's a big double-whammy.
So what's the gardener to do?
In no particular order, consider these options:
Mulch everything. Spread a good 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch. Order a load from Sonoma Compost, if you have enough planted area, or buy bags at your local garden center. On the other hand, if you normally compost, or use organic fertilizer, keep their use to a minimum. Not increasing plant growth this year is a way of holding water needs down.
Get rid of most or all of that lawn. Lawn alternatives abound, even if you wait a year to put them in. There are a variety of methods for lawn removal, which we will cover in our May website. In the meantime, do some planning about which parts of your lawn you can live without, and think about what you’d like to replace it with. If you are planning to do this yourself it can be a fairly lengthy project, so getting started with the planning now and replanting in the fall can be a sensible time horizon.
Use low-water plants
Plant nothing that requires much summer water. Drought tolerant California natives and Mediterranean or xeriscapic plants should be emphasized plants for these times. SCMG articles ‘Very Drought Tolerant Plants’, ‘California Natives’ and ‘Mediterranean Gardening’ are useful guides.
Or, plant nothing
Better yet, don't plant anything new at all this spring, unless it is to take the place of the even thirstier lawn. Don't incur the cost of plants, compost, irrigation components (and if you don't do it yourself), planting labor. Just don't spend the money, when there won't be water for new plants anyway.
Convert to drip irrigation
Convert overhead irrigation to drip irrigation. This does cost money, but has an immediate payback. Use automatic timers to control watering, and plan water zones so that plants with like water needs are on the same line. After you've done that, if you have established plants, natives or otherwise, that do better with some summer water, but can tolerate little to none, cut those zones down to minimal watering. Perhaps monthly, or at most twice a month, depending on the plants, location, sun/shade and exposure. You can also prune to reduce foliage volume and thus water requirements.
Plan ahead for fall
And perhaps resign yourself to some high summer water plants going away. Either actively remove them, or simply stop watering, let them die, and cut back. Plan replacements for those plants in the fall, when the natural rainfall takes the place of high-cost and precious municipal water, and plan to replace with water thrifty plants. See ‘Mediterranean Gardening’ and ‘Xeriscapic Plants’ for details.
So wake up to the fact that this year is different. We’re all learning how to behave differently financially, and live with a new economic order—we’ve got to make the same transition in our gardening.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners