Worldwide cost of tap water

Water is too cheap!

A little further down in the blog when I conclude that rain barrels are only the leading edge of a water public relations campaign and that they only make sense if they are given away free, I made a casual comment that water is cheap. "Tap water costs next to nothing" is the exact quote from my most recent Rain barrel vs. soil rant. A comment from Diane of Food, Fun and Life in the Charente was that tap water was too expensive to see extensive outdoor use in France and the UK.

Wikipedia supports this, citing 6% of total residential water used outdoors (lawn watering and washing cars) in France. This is much lower than California (The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California estimates that, "in hot, dry areas, landscape irrigation can account for as much as 70 percent of the summer water use in single-family homes."  This is probably a histrionic upper limit for PR purposes, but it can still serve as a point of comparison: 6% is a factor of 10 less than 70% so the real numbers are probably not in alignment either.) But is it really a cost issue that keeps outdoor water use in France much lower than in southern California or is it a cultural and horticultural issue?


Rain 0.05"; season total 2.26"

0.05" fell while I was in Joshua Tree last night. While we endured blasts of frigid air the coast was enjoying a light sprinkle.

- Posted at great expense from my iPhone


Rain 0.09"; season total 2.13"

Forecast was for 0.5" and thunderstorms. Not so much.

0.05" of rain on Nov 20
0.04" of rain on Nov 21

- Posted at great expense from my iPhone


Rain barrel vs. soil

You are a rain barrel stud, but you're beginning to feel a slight unease. Your sense of equanimity is a little disturbed because you've been reading this blog. You figured out that tap water costs next to nothing, so the $500 you spent on rain barrels is beginning to chafe in your tender areas - not only is there no benefit during the majority of the year when we have no rain in our Mediterranean climate, but the barrels aren't the most aesthetic or space-efficient addition to your yard. You want to do the right thing for the environment and a casual survey of your yard during the last rain storm suggested that next to the quantity of rain running off your driveway and out to the street, your rain barrels were looking a little...paltry.

Catalina Ironwood as street tree - before

I was able to take a still out of a video that Margaret sent showing the green concrete that beautified the Aviation median strip before the Catalina Ironwoods were put in.

This view is looking the opposite direction as the picture in my previous blog post.  Empty planter boxes surrounded by green-painted concrete were there for years.


Catalina Ironwood as street tree

Over in Margaret's neighborhood the county recently put in new street landscaping with Catalina Ironwoods, deer grass, and a few other natives. Margaret had emailed me in May of 2009!! about a neighborhood vote to use the native plants. Although i think it was planned for 2009, apparently it took until now to put the native plants in.

Here is an bit from the May 2009, email from Margaret which shows the influence of a neighborhood association.

" Several weeks ago I attended the Del Aire Neighborhood Association meeting.
...it was discussed what will happen to the median strip at Aviation. The olive trees will be relocated to another Los Angeles city and in its place Catalina Ironwood trees will be planted. The Neighborhood Assoc. was adamant that only Calif. natives be planted. In fact they turned away a shipment of some east coast trees. The renovation is being headed up by Anne Kershner. Should start in the fall."

- Posted at great expense from my iPhone


Soils primer

I was guilty, just like many of you.  I went through the gardening motions of tilling, composting, cover cropping, and mulching without a good understanding of their real impact. I despise unthinking orthodoxy even if I believe it's correct, and I ought to have applied that philosophy closer to home.  For all my belief in the value of soil improvement I could have been speaking cavemanese when it came to a real sophisticated rationale behind my belief: "Compost gud.  Mulch gud.  Make gud soil."  It took me a while, but I've finally made sense of a number of soils issues that were flitting about the corners of my mind.

It turns out that there's a useful level of understanding for gardeners a step or two above the cavemanese or dummy level.  While there's plenty of web information on the necessity of mulching and composting those articles are are often little better than my cavemanese since they don't provide a scientific or evidence-based rationale.  I'll try to leave that sort of writing for the garden mulch sycophants, color-by-number recipe followers, and garden hangers-on and instead give you a little bit of an empirical soil science rationale behind the seven pillars of garden soil maintenance.


Southern California vegetable garden

Robert Smaus, the well-regarded but now retired LA Times gardening columnist, advised in early October, 2006 (http://www.latimes.com/features/la-hm-smaus5oct05,0,6059164.story) the following winter crops.

Winter vegetables

Many vegetables only grow, or grow best, during the cool fall, winter and early spring months. These include beet, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrot, cauliflower, celery, endive, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, leek, head and leaf lettuce, mesclun mixes, onion, pea, radish, spinach, snow peas, Swiss chard and turnip. Most are easy from seed but cabbage, broccoli and other cole crops
[Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower] are best transplanted into the garden so they can be planted deep enough to cover and support the bends typically found in young stems.

I think that arugula ought to do well too, given the leafy greens that are on the list.

I'm also about a month behind his suggested planting schedule, but maybe my proximity to the coast will help keep temperatures up for germination.


Rain 0.11"; season total 2.04"

I was surprised by overnight rainfall totaling 0.11" this A.M.

A co-worker who lives in the inland areas stated that it fell hard at his house, but it was gentle at mine.


Magical rain barrels versus the world

I've previously talked about the kind of collection efficiencies that rain barrel users can expect.  They are typically dismal unless you have a very large barrel or the right kind of rainfall pattern.  Collection efficiency depends on the rainfall pattern since one large storm would overwhelm most storage systems, thereby wasting the majority of the rainfall whereas a large number of small storms might never once overflow a typical barrel system. In the latter case efficiency would be 100%.

Based on typical southern California rainfall patterns I estimate a typical rain barrel collection efficiency at 10-20%. This is based on my previous analysis after throwing out the highest and lowest rainfall years and applying a factor of two reduction in efficiency, since the numbers I calculated were best case, and nobody is that diligent. Susan Carpenter of the LA Times spent $500 on two rain barrels and received a third for free.  If the roof area she captured rain from was 1500 sq ft, then her cost per square foot would be $0.33 for 10-20% efficiency. She was happy to pay it, and I guess that speaks to the psychological impact of having a seemingly large amount of water deposited, as if by magic, in your barrel.

But is 100% efficiency achievable and cost effective? Yes, just about.


Madrona Marsh demonstration garden

The native plant demonstration garden around the Madrona Marsh visitor center is open whether or not the Marsh is open. While visiting, I met a Torrance city employee and another couple members of the public who were enjoying the gardens.

One reason I had for going was that I had previously identified a small grove of Salix exigua (Narrow-leafed Willow) as particularly pleasing. They had reminded me of bamboo glades in both form and height and I thought them quite elegant. The grove is now closer to a thicket - I think some thinning would be required to maintain the bamboo look over the years but perhaps the look is also dependent upon the growth cycle. I still think it's a pleasing shrub, below at a distance.

Other plants had their autumn finery on:


'Rogers Red' grape identified in the sign as Vitus californica. However we now know that is not true. DNA analysis tells us that 'Rogers Red' is a first generation cross between Alicante Bouschet, a less widely known Vitus vinafera grape used traditionally as a vin de tincture in winemaking and our native Vitus Still looks great!

Catalina silver lace looked luminous.

This plant struck my fancy because of the jaunty dried stalks, though I don't know its name.

Finally, Ceanothus 'Dark Star' - the same that recently died in my yard - shows that branch dieback is more typical than one might suspect.

- Posted at great expense from my iPhone


Magical rain barrel psychology

In earlier posts I first exposed the cult of the rain barrel as a marginally efficient sop to green guilt but then had an Ah Ha moment in the second post when I related the prevailing theory of how unengaged people will become engaged people through the magic of rain barrels.

The magical rain barrel theory says that Flo and Joe Sixpack will suddenly throw off years of disengagement and disregard for the environment after receiving a free rain barrel from the City of LA(1) After work Joe will park his 4WD full sized truck in the lot-length driveway of their 50's era SFR, amble over to the rain barrel, and switch on the irrigation for his organic free-range tomatoes. He'll share the tomatoes down at the local VFW Hall and, over cold Budweiser, tell the story of the enabling technology of the rain barrel. In doing so he will spread the true gospel. It'll be viral!


This theory only works on people that are already on the cusp of wanting to do something green. Among LA's west side population I'll take a guess that fraction is at most 5% of households. So if you want to make inroads in 5% of households, go ahead and give out free rain barrels. Heck, I'll take one, though even on my somewhat capacious lot I don't know where I would conveniently keep it. On second thought, cancel my rain barrel. Just send me a crew of workers for a weekend to redo the drainage in my yard to more effectively infiltrate water on site.

What sorts of efficiencies push people's buttons and get them excited and engaged? Hardnosed reporter Susan Carpenter, the Realist/Idealist of LA Times was so thrilled with her $500 investment in 3 rain barrels that she put it at number three on her top list of green innovations. She lived with them for the past two to three years and based on my guess that her roof was larger than 600 square feet, she was probably getting rainwater collection efficiencies no better than I cite in my first blog post - 20% to 47% (her roof is larger but her total barrel size is larger too so these numbers are educated guesses for sake of discussion). But because no one is as efficient as the hypothetical water stud in that post, let's assume Susan had an actual 10% to 24% efficiency out of her rain barrels. She says that it lasted her a month into summer.

And she got excited! So here's a person with green tendencies, presumably somewhat skeptical (she is a Realist, after all) getting excited over an outlay of $500 that netted one less month of watering their fruit trees in summer.

I guess magic does happen.

1. "The City of Los Angeles, Department of Public Works, Bureau of Sanitation, Watershed Protection Division (Stormwater Program) rolled out the City’s first free Rainwater Harvesting pilot program in July 2009.
Residents that sign up for the program will be eligible for complimentary installations of (1) rain barrels (2) downspout disconnections, or (3) custom-made planter boxes for businesses. The captured rainwater will then be either routed to pervious surfaces or used for on-site irrigation."


OFG Hands On Workshop event wrapup

Last Saturday I went to the Hands on Workshop (HOW) that I had heard about through my Ocean Friendly Gardens class participation (see Ocean friendly garden landscaping class wrapup) The workshop covered implementing a site evaluation using a worksheet to calculate current water use, runoff, and a water budget for conversion of a Torrance single family residence to an Ocean Friendly Garden that uses rain water. My goal was to check and cement the knowledge that I gained since I started to install my own native plant garden.  I know  that I made a lot of decisions based on less data than I could have had and when I build the next garden I want to have a bit more basis for my decisions.  I was also interested assessing in the community interest OFGs.

The next step at this residence will be to incorporate the ideas into the Garden Assistance Program Workday (GAP) on Friday, November 26, 10am-4pm. This household is participating in the Garden Assistance Program whereby successful applicants get assistance to have their gardens reworked into ocean friendly gardens. I believe they are paying for plant materials and garden supplies, but the labor and design advice are provided at no cost. The homeowners were very gracious and welcoming (particularly considering that we were tracking mud all over their yard) and provided a light lunch with some delicious homemade berry and guava preserves.

The cost of the HOW, attended by perhaps 40 or more people, was free to the attendees though in the past charges have been up to $25 per person. This underwriting was provided by the City of Torrance since this is the first well-publicized garden conversion in the City of Torrance, who also plan similar garden conversions at several public sites around the city in an effort to reduce water use and provide demonstration gardens.

A (the?) top Torrance water manager was there and stated that Torrance will be moving to more recharge and use of local aquifers and to a four tier water rate system where the top rate will be more than twice the lowest rate, making gardens like this one a possibly significant contributor to the local water economy. It's interesting that no one ever mentions rationing at these meetings without first and more prominently mentioning tiered rates. I figure that aggressive tiered rates is the standard public answer to "what about rationing" types of questions. I hope that it is sufficient because no one is actually talking about real water rationing in California, such as would result immediately from significant infrastructure failure in northern California, or gradually due to continued severe drought. I've not heard of emergency water tiering, whereas emergency water rationing has a more familiar ring. At the class, West Basin Water District representative Carol Kwan related how rationing worked when she lived in Hong Kong: Water was turned on for 4 hours every three days! During the time water was on they filled every pot in the house with water to last through the next three days!

The workshop was useful, the instructors friendly and approachable, and the participants seemed engaged. I'm judging the community interest high based on the number of participants.  I also felt particularly rewarded to get the straight skinny in regards to clarifying my mystification at the cult of the rain barrel. I did a little practical garden work, digging a hole to assess soil compaction (over 30 minutes to drain means it's compacted), learned that you only need to remediate soil to the depth of your largest plant (about 12" for 1 gal plants (soil flora and fauna will do the rest), and assessed drainage, learned to identify fungal hyphae and did some figgerin' on  soil type and exposure for use in evapotraspiration calculations.

Walking in LA

I came across Where the Sidewalk Starts blog today and found it an interesting read.  I have to confess that I was searching for the straight skinny on how I (as a motorist) need to yield to pedestrians.  I found that information in a post titled "A Confession A primer on the finer details of crosswalk law."