They Fight to Curb Thirst of Plant Life : Pasadena: Landscape architects are trying to wean the city from lush green lawns in favor of more water-efficient vegetation.


Call the recent rain a mixed blessing, conservationists say. It’s watering thirsty plants and restocking reservoirs, but it’s also eroding zeal for voluntary rationing.

“Some of us are talking about starting an organization called Californians for the Drought,” jokes Rebecca Fisher, a landscape specialist with the Pasadena Water and Power Department.

Fisher heads a program to change Pasadena, where for decades tourists have come to ogle the extravagant stretches of green grass and tropical shrubbery, into a model of water conservation in landscaping. About half of the city’s water supply--about 45% to 50%, Fisher says--now goes to landscaping.

Already, city-owned green strips that used to be covered by water-guzzling turf now sport native succulents and cactusy-looking agaves. City landscape architects are beginning to pore critically over plans for new construction projects, looking for water-wasting flaws.

And Water and Power staff are preparing an ordinance that would establish landscaping guidelines for new commercial and multifamily residential developments--including the prohibition of new turf except in “functional” areas, such as playgrounds and picnic sites.


“The momentum is there,” says Fisher, 31, an energetic woman who talks in rapid-fire spurts. “It’s taken a year to gear up to full force.”

Five years of drought may have left some distressing views of cracked mud where lakes and reservoirs once sparkled, she says, but it has also forced many Southern Californians to reconsider their spendthrift ways with water.

Even a year of normal rainfall, as 1991 may shape up to be, shouldn’t reduce the zeal for conservation, Fisher insists.

“People in Southern California have to realize that they live next to a desert,” she says. “It (the drought) is going to happen again.”

Besides, Pasadena is still under orders from the Metropolitan Water District--which supplies more than half of the city’s water--to reduce its allotment by 46%, says Water and Power conservation coordinator Mariann Long.

“We’re still under mandatory restrictions,” Long notes.

As with most cities, the conservation message seems to flicker between a brilliant glow and a dull glimmer in Pasadena, city officials say. “When you have 1,800 employees and a budget of $375 million,” says Rick Cole, a member of the Board of Directors, “some people get the message on policy and some don’t.”

For example, as city workers installed native plants along a median strip on the east side of City Hall last year, they were also putting in new grass, which requires about four cubic feet of water for every square foot of lawn, in the building’s courtyard. (Most drought-resistant plantings can get by with less than half of that, with some requiring no watering at all.)

Such scenes make Fisher, a landscaper before she joined the city staff nine months ago, frown. Commenting on the workings of city government, she says, “Everything seems to take about three times as long as you expected it to.”

If she had her druthers, all of the city-supervised landscaping would be water efficient. That means it would look something like the grounds around the city-owned La Casita del Arroyo, a historic stone house on South Arroyo Boulevard.

At the house, orchid-like Pacific Coast irises and tiny bell-like snow-in-summers bloom in low-water beds, while heavy-drinking azaleas are irrigated with dripping mechanisms instead of sprinklers. Plants are sectioned off to distinguish their watering requirements.

The point of the city’s “xeriscaped” garden, as environmentalists call this mode of water-efficient landscaping, is not only to show that it can be done but that it need not be drab and dun-colored, Fisher says. There are scarlets, whites and purples in the garden.

“Here’s a spot of color,” says Fisher, touching the pale purple irises, “and they don’t even like summer water.”

On the other hand, some new developments, like the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel and a wing of Huntington Memorial Hospital, are notable for doing things the old way--wastefully, Fisher says.

She marches around the 23-acre grounds of the hotel, pointing out the errors. There are beds of flowers, ground covering, shrubs and expansive fields of grass--all requiring heavy irrigation. Where hotel landscapers have placed drought-tolerant native oak trees, near the swimming pool, they have laid turf right up to the trunk, ensuring that the trees will be over-watered.

Burt Cota, landscape manager for the hotel, says the landscaping is “sensitive” to conservation necessities. He adds that the hotel does not tap into city water because it has its own well, whose water is used exclusively for landscaping.

“We’re very concerned about water,” Cota says. “We’ll be doing our part--that’s for sure.”

But Fisher, not assuaged, says wells are supplied with ground water. “They’re pulling out water from everybody’s supply of water,” she says. “It’s not an excuse not to conserve.”

At the Huntington Hospital wing on California Boulevard, Fisher waves dismissively at two broad, fenced-in swaths of grass.

But hospital spokesman Steve Willis defends the landscaping, saying, “It’s an inexpensive ground cover. It keeps the weeds down and it’s better than what was there before--a gravel lot that a lot of people complained was an eyesore.”

Counters Fisher, “They should turn it into baseball fields.”

George Morrow, manager of utility resource planning for Pasadena’s Department of Water and Power, says projects such as the hotel and hospital, which received city approval more than three years ago, are “past situations.”

Now, all building plans are reviewed by city landscape architects, and water inefficiencies are pointed out to developers, Morrow says.

“Most folks tend to want to do things that are supportive of conservation and the environment,” he adds. “We tend to get a great deal of cooperation.”

Where there is a lack of cooperation, a new city ordinance should soon be in place to deal with the situation.

Like every municipality in California, Pasadena faces a new state law requiring that it pass a “water-efficient landscape” ordinance by January, 1992. That means landscaping plans are to be reviewed for water efficiency before a development receives city approval, Fisher says.

City officials concede they worry about over-regulating the kinds of things people put in their yards. “We don’t want to be water Nazis,” Fisher says. “Nobody wants to say, ‘Thou shalt not plant pansies in July.’ ”

But special conditions sometimes dictate special measures, city officials say.

Cole considers a not-very-likely extreme contingency. “The real test will be when they replant the Rose Bowl playing field with a low-water-use ground cover,” he says.