Water in the City of Trees and PhDs: As Wells Dry, Conservation Ideas Flow

Whether it’s the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park closing temporarily due to concerns of fire, or the warnings on the City of Claremont’s website that wild animals driven by thirst are descending from the mountains, the effects of California’s drought are clear in the City of Trees and PhDs. While the drought may be less noticeable on the lush, well-watered lawns of the Claremont Colleges—indeed, the city as a whole remains very verdant—the drought is here, and it’s here to stay.

“Even if we got a lot of good rain between now and this next year, by next summer, it’s not going to be enough,” said Brian Bowcock, the Division 3 Director at Three Valleys Municipal Water District. “It’s very, very scary to me.”

Three Valleys is the wholesale agency that provides imported water to the Claremont water system. While about half of Claremont’s water comes from local groundwater, the other half of Claremont’s water is imported from the State Water Project, which distributes water from Northern California throughout the state. Although Claremont continues to receive water from Northern California, water restrictions imposed by the state mean that neighboring cities are increasingly reliant on water from the Colorado River—a once-vibrant source now at risk of running dry. 

“I’ve been in water for 54 years,” Bowcock said. “This is the first time that all of the water agencies across the San Gabriel foothills are getting together to try to figure out how they’re going to accommodate the people this time next year.”

Chris Veirs, a city official, also noted that water use “is a huge concern for the entire community.” Some residents, either strained by rising water bills or wishing to conserve water in light of the drought, are simply letting their yards die—a practice that endangers the trees. City code requires that residents water the trees on their property, Veirs said, but the city retains ownership of the trees and plants, trims and maintains them. Under-watered trees, particularly brittle eucalyptus, are the most vulnerable. 

“If we could cut our water use by 40 percent we’d be pretty sustainable,” he said. He explained that 20 percent of water used in Claremont is being wasted through poor watering habits and run-off. Beyond that, Veirs said, there are basic landscaping changes that the city and residents could make that could reduce water use by another 20 percent.

In addition to reducing usage, the community may need to consider alternative sources for water. One promising potential means for water conservation in the city is a ‘black water’ reclamation project, which entails recycling sewage water. 

Richard Haskell, a physics professor at Harvey Mudd College, has been spearheading the development of a large-scale black water reclamation project since 2007. If the reclamation system were implemented, sewage water would be purified at plants near campus and reused for irrigation. The project could reuse 40 percent of the colleges’ sewage water for irrigation, Haskell said, and potentially provide a model that the city could use in the future to reclaim residential water. 

An engineering feasibility report for the project, commissioned in 2012, was released in the spring, but the consortium has not yet approved the project. Haskell said that the reclamation system is projected to cost $8.1 million, but $2 to 4 million could come from external funding. Over 20 years, the system is projected to save approximately $10 million. 

“It’s not easy to raise money to do the right thing, but in this case, it’s a source of revenue: It’s not an expense,” Haskell said. 

Meanwhile, the city is upgrading irrigation systems and planning to remove turf in the median on Indian Hill Boulevard between Foothill and Baseline, according to Veirs. The City will replace the turf with drought-resistant, native plants.

Individual residents are also looking more and more at turf replacement options, although the move from turf can be tough. 

“A big part of landscaping in Claremont was built at a time when everybody wanted to have a postage-stamp lot with grass out front and a little hedge around the border,” Veirs said. It’s easy for homeowners today to feel stuck with that expensive and inefficient landscaping, but Veirs want residents to get away from the notion that they should replace their yards entirely with cactuses or rocks.

Enter Sustainable Claremont, the nonprofit organization that has been ramping up the city’s water conservation efforts since it was founded three years ago. Sustainable Claremont aims, among other projects, to give people access to information on how to make a sustainable switch, from information about improved sprinkler heads and watering systems to recommendations about what plants are more climate-appropriate, like rosemary, agave and clumping grasses. 

The City of Claremont requires that residents keep their yards at least 50 percent covered with vegetation, Veirs said, but there are many options beyond traditional turf. 

DRIP, the Drought Resistant Irrigation Program, is a community sustainability movement within Sustainable Claremont’s Water Action Group designed to address the water plight through environmental landscaping education. Inspired by the city’s energy efficiency program, CHERP, (the Claremont Home Energy Retrofit Project), DRIP is intended to educate residents about water-wise landscaping possibilities. The goal of DRIP is to “retrofit the lawns,” explained Emma Fullem PO ’14. DRIP is designed to take advantage of the city’s existing resources, like local experts on native landscaping and community volunteers.

Haskell, who is also Chair of the Water Action Group and coordinator of the DRIP program, said that DRIP was first conceived by Sustainable Claremont, but Haskell credits the initiative to a group of Environmental Analysis majors who took on the project last spring during their senior seminar.

At its most basic level, DRIP is offering classes for everyone interested in retrofitting their homes for water efficiency. The first course is a California Friendly Landscape Training class. Claremont residents will come away from the class with the principles of sustainable landscaping in mind and can then come up with a design. They can follow up with a design class and a garden stewardship class that focuses on maintenance. 

DRIP classes will leave residents with a plan, “a blueprint for their yard and some idea of how to maintain it,” Haskell said.

Yard maintenance can be demanding physical work, and so for homeowners looking to hire outside assistance, DRIP will provide them with a list of landscape architects, contractors, designers and maintenance firms.

“People who have gone through the CLFT class will know enough at the outset to be able to talk to these service providers,” Haskell said.

The classes will be funded by the Metropolitan Water District, through the Three Valleys agency.

“It doesn’t cost Sustainable Claremont or the DRIP program anything,” Haskell said. “And the beneficiaries are the residents of Claremont.”

Classes will begin this month and are open to anyone.

“We knew we wanted to make sure there was a mechanism to get low-income households into the program as well,” Fullem said.

Sustainable Claremont celebrated its third anniversary Oct. 2 in Padua Hills. The meeting focused largely on water and ended with a discussion about the future of DRIP. 

Nobody can predict what rain will fall this winter, or next year, or which of these projects—conservation, recycling and landscaping—may prove most essential to the city’s long-term sustainability. But in the face of a possible new normal, the fate of Claremont’s trees and lawns could someday hinge on any or all of the efforts already underway. 

Caroline Bowman contributed reporting.

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