In the midst of a statewide drought with no end in sight, the city of Claremont is stepping up efforts to save its image as the “City of Trees and PhDs” and preserve Claremont’s historic trees damaged by the drought.
Of the 24,000 city-owned trees, many are over 100 years old. According to data provided by the city, while a June 2014 inspection found 470 of these trees to be “drought-stressed,” a new inspection in August 2015 showed that 606 trees are drought-stressed and 147 dead. Drought stress, scaled from moderate to severe to critical, can be identified by a number of symptoms, such as yellowing and wilting or premature dropping of leaves.
The city has been taking various steps to analyze and respond to this tree crisis. Since spring 2014, there have been three professional assessments, staff and budget relocation to handle the tree crisis, treatment for damaged trees, and elevating the part-time position of city arborist to a full-time position.
Inland Urban Forest Group (IUFG), a for-profit subgroup of the Inland Urban Forest Council, a non-profit organization promoting sustinable management of urban forestry, conducted a citywide drought assessment of street trees three times beginning in June of 2014. Dave Roger, a consulting urban forester to the city from IUFG, said that urban trees typically have a shorter lifespan. Pavements limit space for roots to grow and limit the amount of rainwater seeping into the roots. New insect species are also increasingly coming into cities from foreign shipments. The drought was only the tip of the iceberg.
“You’ve got people, and bless them for wanting to conserve water, but they’ve shut off the waters to their lawns, and the trees were used to getting that lawn watered … And whether they’ll make it through this drought or not till the next, we don’t know,” Roger said.
According to experts, the city and its residents can help the trees even in the state of drought.
“We’re trying to explain to people that the amount of water that a tree takes to keep alive is significantly smaller than what you used to spend on your grass,” Roger said. “So you can still water the tree and keep it alive and still be within the guidelines of the state for water conservation.”
According to a Sept. 8 agenda report to the City Council, the city has reduced water usage by 42 percent after the state had mandated it cut its usage by 32 percent.
The city has also been doing targeted outreach to 1,800 homeowners with city trees on their properties. 1,439 of the city-trees are in “easement,” meaning that they are located on or in front of a private property. Claremont Municipal Code Chapter 12.26 defines city trees and requires residents take care of these trees on their private properties.
The public outreach procedure has involved distribution of “Tree Care Toolkits” and flyers and guides to these residents as well as door-to-door visits and information meetings. If the resident fails to water the tree in six weeks, an administrative citation of $100 will be issued with subsequent daily citations in increasing amounts of $250 and $500. If a city tree on a private property dies from lack of water, the resident will be asked to pay for the replacement.
David Shearer, director of Claremont Heritage, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the history and historic character of Claremont, said that the city’s response came too late.
“The city was caught off-guard,” Shearer said. “There was kind of a delay in the response to the water reductions in terms of addressing the watering needs of the street trees, and the community itself wasn’t really educated or up-to-speed on what their responsibilities were.”
But Shearer said that the city has been stepping up efforts to save the trees and that trees “will remain a priority from here on in.” Roger said that the city had to do a thorough examination to comprehend the magnitude of the problem before deciding on a course of action and that the city has been doing a “phenomenal job” of addressing drought issues compared to many nearby cities.
Cy Carlberg, a Claremont native and principal of an arboricultural and horticultural consulting firm based in southern California, wrote in an email to TSL that while drought-stricken trees can be seen throughout Southern California, Claremont stands out for having a wide variety of tree species that were planted when the city and the Claremont Colleges were first founded.
“Remember that most of these settlers (and visionaries!) were from the East Coast and sought to emulate the Ivy League campuses they left behind, using plant material from those regions,” Carlberg wrote. “[Most] have provenance in the Midwest or East and rely on regular moisture.”
According to Carlberg, many of these tree species can be found on the 5C campuses such as the Elm Tree Lawn at Scripps College, the coast redwoods on Marston Quad at Pomona College, the liquidambars on Dartmouth from Eighth to Twelfth Street and at the Liquidambar Mall at Harvey Mudd College, and the tulip trees at Scripps.
Roger also said that Claremont as a city has significantly larger number of historic trees than other cities. While he acknolwedged that many of the trees in Claremont are more suited to grow in the East Coast climate, Roger noted the benefits of having a wide variety of species. For instance, having only one species of trees on a street could mean that an insect invasion could wipe out all the trees on that street. Also, some southern California trees stay “dormant” or stops its growth temporarily during certain months of the year.
“It is fortunate that compared to most of these Inland Empire cities, Claremont has older trees and a bigger tree canopy,” Roger said.
The city will continue to oversee efforts to save the city’s trees. Roger said that he is currently conducting an assessment of park trees and hopes eventually to be able to help draft an urban forest management plan to guide the city’s efforts over the next 25 years.