During El Niño, Continued Water Conservation Encouraged

Water experts in San Diego have a warning as we head into what's expected to be a wet winter, thanks to El Niño: do not fall back to your old water wasting ways.

"Drought is the new norm," said Pam Meisner, Education Director at The Water Conservation Garden in the South Bay. "Even if we have a wet winter for two years, we will not be out of the drought."

The State Water Resources Control Board is also urging people to make sure water conservation continues through the winter.

"With continued heat, the danger of more wildfires, and no way of knowing when the drought will end, every drop of water that remains in our local reservoirs and aquifers is insurance in case of another dry year or more," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. The plea came as the board announced Friday that Californians reduced water use by more than 26 percent during September, exceeding the state conservation mandate for a fourth straight month.

If El Niño rain falls in the right places, it could offer a bonanza to our two primary sources of imported supply in the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River Basin, according to Bob Muir, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District.

"People, however, must remember that lots of rain this winter doesn't change the need to conserve," Muir said.

The Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon opened 17 years ago to educate people about water use, and experts say the message seems to finally be sinking in.

"They're getting it, but it's taken over 25 years of San Diego educating people," Meisner said.

She created the character Miss Smarty-Plants in 2008 and more than 63,000 people now participate in her educational programs each year. She hopes the forecasted wet winter doesn't mean a slide back in the progress they've seen.

"We can no longer have rose gardens and lilies and lush lawns," said The Garden's public relations representative Reema Makani Boccia. "The goal is really to get people in here and get them inspired."

At The Garden, Meisner and 70 other volunteers teach San Diegans three main ideas she hopes they continue to follow: landscape with drought tolerant plants, use drip irrigation, and use mulch such as bark chips to keep water in the soil.

The recent move by many in Southern California to switch to drought tolerant landscaping is making a difference.

"By removing turf, the region is transforming the Southland's landscape by removing up to 170 million square-feet of grass, more than triple Governor Brown's statewide goal," Muir said.

The district, however, had to close its turf rebate program to new applications in early July because funding ran out. There is a waiting list, in case any of the approved projects do not move forward with their planned landscape changes.

If you're interested in learning more about drought tolerant landscaping, The Garden offers low cost classes, including "Toss the Turf" and "Irrigation 101," as well as private design consultations for a fee.

The Garden also has free tours every Saturday at 10am, or by appointment. The tour features a backyard makeover exhibit that shows how using drought tolerant plants can turn a backyard that uses 28,000 gallons of water a year into one that uses only 6,000 gallons. The Garden grounds also include a formal garden, organic vegetable garden and a butterfly pavilion.

The tour also includes advice of some popular choices for water tolerant plants, including: Carex pansa (also known as California meadow sedge), the Chinese Pistache tree, grevillea plants, crepe myrtle trees and native plum. Bottle brush and lavender starflower make for good screening along fences. And if you want to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, consider lantana milkweed and budlia (also called butterfly bush).

While landscaping is a big part of dealing with the drought, experts also point to the importance of water harvesting during a wet winter.

Experts at the Water Conservation Garden hope San Diegans will consider installing their own water harvesting systems. Meisner advises people to use rain barrels, specifically in a dark color so algae doesn't grow.

The Metropolitan Water District is prepared to capture and store any extra water we do get thanks to an El Niño event, because of investments to regions including Diamond Valley Lake and the Inland Feeder. The district has increased its storage capacity to 13 times what it was in 1990.

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