California’s drive to save water is killing trees, hurting utilities and raising taxes

Everywhere he goes, Anthony Ambrose sees the dead and dying. They haunt this city’s streets, the browning yards of stylish homes, the scenic grounds of the local University of California campus and dry roadway medians. They’re urban trees, thirsty for water as the state enters the fifth year of the worst drought in its history, and thousands are keeling over.

“It’s definitely not a good thing,” said Ambrose, a researcher at the university who studies forest ecosystems. “They’re not as visual, they’re not as pretty. Along the highway you see a lot of dead redwoods. I feel sorry for the trees.”

Eight months after California’s governor ordered cities to cut water consumption by a quarter, residents and businesses have exceeded expectations. But no good deed goes unpunished. Now, the state’s furious conservation drive is not only threatening trees but also resulting in sluggish sewer lines and possible increases in water and tax bills.

In declaring a drought emergency in April, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said watering emerald-green grass every day “is a thing of the past.” He neglected to say trees were exempt, so residents, businesses and local governments stopped watering them, too.

Now the state is losing millions of trees that beautify their cities, improve air quality, offer shade in areas where temperatures can reach 100 degrees and provide habitat for untold numbers of squirrels, birds and other animals.

Trees are stressed and wilting from water loss in high heat. Leaves and limbs of redwoods, oaks, magnolias and other species are dropping, arborists say. Urban trees are joining the 12.5 million wild trees that died last year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“I think it’s fair to say we think the drought is causing a problem,” said Carla Short, superintendent of the bureau of urban forestry in San Francisco, where 255,000 trees stand in the city and parks about a dozen miles from Berkeley.

The negative impact of the state’s conservation campaign has gone well beyond trees. Utilities that deliver the water to cities lost more than half a billion dollars over the last eight months as customers cut back, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Those revenue dips, which are projected to continue through October because of the board’s extension of the water-saving measures, probably will result in rate increases for at least some customers.

“There’s nothing that peeves customers more than to be told to conserve, and then turn around and say, ‘Good job, now we’re raising rates,’ ” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the water resources control board.

The water pinch has had several other unfortunate side effects. As customers cut back on the length of their showers, the number of times they flushed their toilets, and the clothes and dishes they washed, they lowered the outflow of water needed to push waste through sewage tunnels.

The nation’s outdated sewers were designed to receive about 120 gallons per household per day to shove wastewater through the systems. “But the flow has dropped to 50 gallons,” said George Tchobanoglous, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“You have solids that you flush and there’s not enough water to carry the material,” he said. That material often sits and releases the telltale, rotten-egg odor of hydrogen sulfide. Besides smelling bad, it corrodes pipes. “When the city says buy low-flush toilets because we all want to save water and save the world, no one can resist,” he said. “But no one thinks about the consequences. It really is a double-edged sword.”

Foul smells aren’t the only thing California city dwellers are complaining about. When the governor urged homeowners to rip out their lawns, he offered them a carrot: tax-free state rebates of up to $2,000 to help pay for replacement desert-themed foliage. At least one of the state’s water suppliers did the state one better, offering rebates of as much as $4,000.

But California water officials who forgave state taxes on the rebates overlooked a major potential drawback — federal taxes. Now the Internal Revenue Service is preparing to tax the rebates as income, a move that could bring a key water conservation program to a halt.

As of February, the state doled out $22 million in rebates to homeowners who swapped their grass turf for mulch and less-thirsty plants. The Metropolitan Water District, the state’s largest water supplier to utilities from Los Angeles to San Diego, gave away $340 million.

Partly because of the rebate from the water district, Tina House, a Pasadena resident, had the grass pulled out on the lot of her two-story colonial revival last summer.

“You say $4,400 — oh, that’s a big chunk of change,” House said. “Nowhere did it mention that we can possibly be on the hook for taxes. My gardener said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this.’ The next day, my girlfriend [who did the same] calls me and says, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have to pay taxes on this.’”

House said her tax bill from the rebate is $1,400. “They’re being taxed for doing the right thing,” argued Dave Todd, land and water use program manager at the state Department of Water Resources.

The federal tax threatens to “reduce the appeal” of a key program to help California cope with drought now and in the future, Todd said. But Deven Upadhyay, who leads the water resource management group for the water district, said the problem resulted from an oversight by state officials and utility managers.

They thought rebates for water efficiency would be treated the same as energy-efficiency rebates, which the IRS doesn’t tax. But the IRS told the officials and members of the state’s unhappy congressional delegation that they were wrong.

Without rebates that encourage residents to replant their lawns with mulch and less-demanding plants, black dirt yards could become common. “We don’t want that to happen,” said Gomberg of the state water resources control board.

Whether the state will save trees is also in question. “Generally just about any tree species is going to need a little bit of water going into a third or fourth year,” said Rhonda Berry, president and chief executive of Our City Forests in San Jose. “Deep watering in the summer once a month will save a lot of trees. In a city, every tree counts.”

But residents are unaware of how to care for trees, and efforts by city leaders to show them have been uneven. Stressed from more than a year without water, even trees that survive will never be the same.

“It’s like a human being,” Berry said. “You’re impacted by stress, and you bounce back but you’re going to have scars and your health is compromised.”

By Darryl Fears


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