Drought alters watering methods

Alternative watering methods may increase in importance as the California drought continues and the push to conserve grows.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency Jan. 17 after three consecutive dry years, calling 2013 the driest year in California history. In Sonoma County, 7.67 inches of rain fell in 2013, marking 20 percent of the area’s average rainfall, and reservoirs across the state, including Sonoma County Water Agency-managed Lake Mendocino, are critically low. State officials are reporting rivers and reservoirs are below record lows and the state’s snowpack is at only 20 percent of its average for January.

While announcing the drought emergency, the governor asked Californians – residents and businesses alike – to curb water usage by 20 percent in an effort to conserve.

Sonoma County 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the county has weathered a drought situation in the past in which water usage was cut back by 15 percent through voluntary efforts.

For now, water conservation is voluntary, but if the drought continues, water managers, including the City of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon Water District, could implement mandatory conservation through Urban Water Management Plans.

Sonoma County, Gorin said, is looking at various conservation strategies to meet the governor’s request for 20 percent reduction. “We need to convince folks in Sonoma County that this (drought) is serious,” Gorin said. “They need to make changes indoors and outdoors to save water.”

A first step toward conservation, Gorin noted, is modifying irrigation methods.

Terry Melberg, who supervises upkeep of the City of Sonoma’s parks, said the city uses slow-rate watering methods on newly planted trees, especially those along the streets and without a nearby irrigation system.

Melberg said that, while there has been no official direction for the city to cut back on watering, city staff are trying to be as efficient as possible, particularly when deciding what type of new plants to put in. He and his team are also trying to mitigate water usage by watering less frequently.

When new trees are planted, like those in the recent Depot Park bike path renovation project, the city uses water bags that are filled with water, zipped together and placed around a tree’s roots to slowly release water. Melberg said these bags are commonly seen during warmer weather on streets such as Andrieux at Second Street West, which have newer trees and are maintained by the city. In cooler weather, when most plants are dormant and require little to no water, the bags are removed for optimal conservation.

Melberg said the city is still working to figure out what the drought means for planting and plant upkeep. “If we don’t get some serious rain in the coming months,” he said, “we may have to let the grass go and just focus on watering just enough to keep trees and shrubs alive.”

“The thing is, when we have the same amount of rainfall every year and more people, or more need, every year, regardless of drought, we are still going to need more water,” said Joe Paternoster, co-owner of DriWater, a Santa Rosa-based company that has provided alternative watering methods since 1995.

“When we go through drought, it brings one thing to the table and that is that water is so precious,” Paternoster said. “Any sort of water-saving technology is important because we need to do all we can to curb demand.”

DriWater, Paternoster explained, is an all-natural product that mixes water with comparatively small amounts of cellulose gum and aluminum sulfate to create a Jello-like substance. The idea for the product came from renowned food chemist Joseph Rosenfield, who invented Skippy peanut butter.

To make the compound, which is 98 percent water, the company uses Santa Rosa water and packages the gel substance in 32-ounce tubes or gel packs. The soil eats away at the thick gel substance and water is slowly released.

DriWater works most effectively when one unit is used for each foot in height of a tree or other plant. The gel pack or tube should be changed every three months.

Because all watering is subterranean and the water releases slowly, Paternoster explained, there is no need for weeding, no evaporation and no leaching.He said with DriWater as an alternative to overhead sprinklers, a hose and watering can, or a drip system, only 5 percent to 10 percent of water normally required for plants is needed.

DriWater, he said, has been used in a number of revegetation and planting projects by government agencies, nonprofits and individuals, including one in Sonoma County’s Salmon Creek and several with the Sonoma County Water Agency. DriWater is especially effective for revegetation and reforestation because it allows for little watering or human disruption in these areas. DriWater is also used globally in countries like Saudi Arabia where irrigation systems are easily destroyed by camels.

Paternoster said the company tests each batch of the product it makes on a garden at the Santa Rosa headquarters. Last year, he said, the garden yielded 2,400 pounds of produce and was only watered three times all year. “It’s pretty amazing,” he said, “when you can grow with almost no water.”

Another water-efficient technology gaining traction locally is the Groasis water box. Sonoma Ecology Center Restoration Project Manager Cassandra Liu said water boxes can be used to minimize watering for young trees and shrubs. The ecology center uses Groasis water boxes at sites on the Overlook Trail and at Montini Open Space Preserve. The boxes have a wick-based system with a reservoir that holds water; the wick carries water to the plants’ roots. The boxes are set on top of the plant base and can be filled manually and through rainfall. There is also a top component that captures atmospheric moisture.

To preserve older, established plants, Liu advises adding compost to topsoil and applying a layer of mulch to best retain water. “Remember,” she said, “that even though plants have a risk of dying, they are dormant this time of year and don’t require very much water.”

Employing water bags, like those the city uses, and converting to drip irrigation, as opposed to hose watering, are also effective techniques.

Liu said alternative watering methods can help meet voluntary conservation goals, but much of the change must come from a cultural shift on how water is used. “We are still tackling watering lawns, so there needs to be a lot of changes in practices. Make sure sprinklers aren’t going off during the day.”

“We need to get to a point,” Gorin concluded, “for our future, of people looking at their water use and determining how they can change their water use.”