The good news yesterday that California cut urban water use by 27% came with a sad asterisk. In their frenzy to disable their sprinklers and eradicate every inch of water-sucking grass from their drought-plagued yards, Californians are accidentally killing their trees. And some of them are falling over dead.

The Associated Press brings to light one of the most misunderstood parts about saving water: Even if you’ve decided to stop watering your lawn, you still need to keep the trees alive.

Advertisement

As a study that I wrote about earlier this year showed, about 12.5 million trees have died in California from the drought so far. In a wilderness setting this makes them more likely to catch fire, of course, but in an urban setting it makes them more susceptible to disease:

Green and other arborists said they have seen an increase in the number of diseased trees in the city. As they get less water, they become more prone to illness caused by pests. In addition to bark beetles, Green has seen a newer pest drilling tunnels in the trunks of “dozens and dozens of trees.”

If trees aren’t able to defend themselves from diseases they could die, and in extreme cases, they could fall down and hurt someone.

Advertisement

Environmentalists worry that the message from the state to turn California’s conserve has been misinterpreted. People are turning their yards into gravel pits, or worse yet, Astroturfed asphalt, and neglecting to water any existing plants entirely. Street trees are the most at-risk since people may not have sprinklers set up between the sidewalk and the street.

This yard I spotted which had been “terminated” offered the perfect example of what NOT to do. The rocks dumped over the loose soil will create its own heat island effect, cooking the few plants tucked into the gravel. Any rain that does fall—and we’ve been getting quite a bit this summer—will be more likely to evaporate or erode into the street instead of sticking around to nourish the plants.

Meadow by John Greenlee, an expert in native and climate-adapted meadows. Image courtesy Greenlee and Associates via KCRW’s DnA

Instead of thinking that drought-tolerant landscapes need to be brown and grey, Californians (and other folks) should look for alternative plants like native grasses and shrubs which still can deliver quite a bit of greenery to a yard. That includes keeping the trees alive which can house wildlife, add color, and deliver much-needed shade this summer.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes