Expo quenches thirst for water conservation knowledge

Earth Day's younger brother came to Laguna Beach last weekend.

The Laguna Beach County Water District opened its doors to the public Saturday and Sunday, hoping to boost attendees' water IQ while exhibitors offered tips on how to plant a raised garden bed and demonstrated the capabilities of different sprinkler heads.

The event, the fourth annual Smartscape Info/Expo, extolled the virtues of planting succulents and native California plants. Attendees walked through a temporary garden of lobelia, manzanita, vegetables and herbs such as peppers, lettuce and rosemary.

Students from Saddleback College's horticulture and landscape design department spent two weeks assembling the stone-bordered garden on district property, complete with a walkway.

The expo featured several organizations and volunteer groups, including the Laguna Beach Garden Club, Master Gardeners of Orange County, which is part of the University of California Cooperative Extension, Rain Bird Corp., an irrigation company, and Kellogg's Garden Products, which sells soil and mulch.

Kids painted their own flower pots and then chose a plant to fit inside, and the Wyland Foundation, named for muralist Robert Wyland, set up an area where children could draw.

Some attendees also received vouchers for free bags of compost.

The expo was more than exhibitors handing out fliers, said Christopher Regan, the district's assistant general manager.

"Our goal is for people to ask the experts questions and look at irrigation systems to see how they work," Regan said as he walked through the native plant garden on Saturday. "[Drought-tolerant] plants don't have to be just cactus. There are birds of paradise, blue status, sticks on fire."

Salvias, a member of the sage plant family, do well in Laguna, according to Robert Farnsworth, chairman of Saddleback College's horticulture and landscape design department.

"They're easy [to grow], beneficial, drought-tolerant and come in many different colors," Farnsworth said.

Laguna resident Anne Stringer browsed the exhibits, trying to get some planting ideas for her yard.

"We live on a slope and have no lawn," Stinger said. "There are irregular-shaped areas so we might do a potpourri of things. We have a lot of agave [plants] on the slope and it's a challenge to water."

The district also displayed how water trickles from grass to a curbside gutter and eventually into storm drains.

Saddleback students erected a makeshift beach with sand and standing water, where an empty soda can and plastic bottle floated — a reminder of what can wash into a storm drain and head into the ocean.

"The biggest issue in Laguna because of hills is runoff," Regan said. "Sprinkler heads run too long. If you see runoff [moving onto sidewalks], the sprinklers have been on for too long. Any time water is not percolating into the ground, [sprinklers] have been on for too long. That's money spent that [residents] don't need to spend. About 50% of our customers' usage is on outdoor irrigation."

He added that specialized devices, often called smart timers, can adjust watering schedules depending on time of year and weather conditions.

That said, water is relatively inexpensive.

The district bills in units — each unit (748 gallons) costs $3.66, Regan said.

The district's main goal is educating its 25,000 customers, he said.

"The impact to a customer's bill is not big if they catch it," Regan said. "Teaching water conservation is tough. We are one of the only businesses that encourages people not to use too much of our product."

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