Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

UC blogs

Drought concerns causing unnecessary impact on landscapes and lawns

UC ANR experts believe schools and parks should be a priority for irrigation, even during the drought.
Following Gov. Brown's call to remove 50 million square feet of turf in California to conserve water, cities across state are now offering rebates to residents willing to pull out their plants and lawns. However, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) turf and landscape experts are asking Californians to reflect on the consequences of replacing their living landscapes with mulch, rock, hardscape or artificial turf.

“Landscape plants and the water they use are under unrelenting attack,” says Don Hodel, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor in Los Angeles County. “But most of these attacks are misguided when one looks at the facts.”

Hodel and Dennis Pittenger, UC ANR Cooperative Extension area environmental horticulturist in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside, wrote a six-page commentary, 9%: The California Drought and Landscape Water Use, with facts about the relatively small amount of California's water that goes into landscapes, and the tremendous benefits to residents, communities and the environment provided by these plants. The article was published in PalmArbor, an electronic journal for the green industry.

“Landscape water use in California accounts for only 9 percent of total statewide water use,” the authors wrote. “Yes, that's right, just 9 percent. If we never watered another home or public landscape, park, sports field, or golf course in California, the state would save 9 percent of its total water consumption.”

Pittenger and Hodel named 12 ways lawns and landscape plants enhance the quality of Californians' lives and make urban areas more livable. Trees, shrubs, groundcovers, lawns and flowers provide:

  • Oxygen
  • Carbon sequestration to help mitigate global warming
  • Rain capture, dust and erosion control
  • Shade and energy savings in heating and cooling
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Food
  • Beauty and ornament
  • Recreation
  • Enhanced property values
  • Psychological well-being
  • Cultural/historic value
  • Jobs and economic value

Children get exercise in suburban green space.
The authors assert that California cannot conserve its way out of drought by trying to wring out significant water savings from the 9 percent that keeps landscapes alive.

Instead of shutting off the sprinklers, the authors call for “judicious irrigation,” providing just enough water to trees, plants and lawns to keep them alive. The authors believe judicious irrigation may be sufficient by itself to meet the 25 to 35 percent water reductions required by the state without changing the landscape to so-called “low-water use” or “drought-tolerant” plants.

“Most woody plants are actually drought-tolerant and low-water use once they are established and cared for properly,” the article says. “Research over the last 30 years has shown that water-reduction goals can be met while maintaining the quality-of-life benefits that landscape plants and functional lawns provide.”

Hodel and Pittenger also identified three urban water uses that should be considered priorities for outdoor irrigation, even in times of extreme water scarcity.

  1. Public parks, school play grounds and sports fields. “Children need to play and exercise on grass, not asphalt or dirt,” the article says. “And we all benefit from walking and exercising in a green, pastoral setting.”
  2. Bona fide botanical gardens and arboreta. “These research collections of plants have immense value,” the authors wrote. “For example, the plant collections at the world-famous San Diego Zoo actually have greater value than the animals.”
  3. Trees. “Mature trees are among the most valuable and difficult-to-replace plants in urban areas,” the UC ANR experts said. “Their loss would be devastating.

The director of UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources, Doug Parker, is a spokesperson for the University of California on water issues of statewide importance. He agrees that, in much of the state, urban communities benefit from natural plantings and turf should be a priority for recreation areas.

“It's true that rock gardens, artificial turf and hardscape do not provide much wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration or environmental cooling,” he said. “But in places like Palm Springs, they are appropriate.”

Having worked closely with policymakers, scientists, government organizations and consumers during the past four years of drought, Parker said he has reached the conclusion that Californians cannot build or conserve their way out of periodic droughts.

“What we really need is a change in mindset to learn to live with drought and uncertainty,” Parker said.

Following are free water-conservation publications from UC ANR:

Water conservation tips for the home lawn and garden
By Pamela Geisel, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus
Carolyn Unruh, staff writer

Managing turfgrasses during drought
By Ali Harvandi, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus
Jaimes Baird, UC ANR Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist, UC Riverside
Janet Hartin, UC ANR Cooperative Extension environmental horticulture advisor, San Bernardino County

Author: Jeannette E. Warnert

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2015 at 9:34 AM

Wildfires are unpredictable, but preparation can help protect homes and animals

Flames and smoke fill the sky behind a Southern California subdivision.

Four years of drought has left California with acres of dry brush and dying trees, abundant fuel for wildfires. Currently, CalFIRE's fire map shows several major fires burning in California.

“There are two factors that help fires spread - winds and topography,” explained Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, in Scientific American. “The thing about wind is, it can change so quickly and the fire will change with it — it can happen in 15 seconds,” said Stephens, who is also co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley.

Wildfires are unpredictable, but there is much that residents of fire-prone areas can do to keep their families, homes and pets safe. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has many online resources for homeowners and landowners in English and in Spanish for dealing with fire.

Protecting homes from fire

To protect houses in the wildland-urban interface from fire, homeowners should start with fire-resistant building materials and architectural features. The Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley has a toolkit for homeowners to assess their vulnerability to fire and offers advice for mitigating fire risk.

A disaster preparedness plan should include plans for animals.
On the Sustainable and Fire Safe Landscapes website, Sabrina Drill, UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, gives tips for creating defensible space around the house. She also provides suggestions for designing a landscape around the home that reduce risk of fire spreading from plants to the structure.

Protecting animals from fire

The School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis offers resources for preparing a plan for horses, livestock and pets in case of wildfire or other disaster. A disaster preparedness plan would include things like transportation for evacuating the animals and emergency shelter.

What to do after a fire

If your home is burned, the Center for Fire Research and Outreach has a list of resources and things to do after a fire, including contacting a local relief organization to help with housing, food and other essentials. Before re-entering the home or site, the center recommends checking with the fire department to ensure it is safe to do so.

Young oaks with thin bark are often killed by fire, but they can resprout from just below the soil line, as occurred on these two fire-damaged oaks.
Revegetating the site

In oak woodlands, wildfires are an ecologically important process. Fire may actually help sprouting oaks survive by eliminating competing plants and creating a more favorable seedbed for acorns to germinate, and reducing the habitat of wildlife species that eat acorns or seedlings, according to Doug McCreary, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus.

Wildfire in an oak woodland can kill some trees outright and leave others with burn damage that may or may not eventually kill them. UC Cooperative Extension has developed a quick method for assessing the extent of burn damage and the likelihood that an affected tree will survive. Instructions can be downloaded for free at http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Items/8445.aspx

For forest landowners, UC ANR has “Recovering from Wildfire,” a guide that covers how to protect land from erosion damage, where to get help and financial assistance, how to manage salvage harvesting, and how to help the forest recover from wildfire.

Preparing communities

UC ANR fire experts work with the California Fire Science Consortium to integrate science into sound fire prevention programs.

In the Lake Tahoe region, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor Susie Kocher collaborates with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and Tahoe Basin fire agencies on a community education project called Living with Fire. Together they provide information for Lake Tahoe communities to prepare for wildfire. Many of the recommendations could apply to any community.

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 at 4:55 PM

Have you tasted an avocado lately?

Eric Focht
The lab of Mary Lu Arpaia, a Cooperative Extension subtropical horticulturalist with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside, hosts an avocado tasting each month on the UCR campus. Attended typically by about 60 people, the tastings have grown in popularity over the years. 

Eric Focht, a staff research associate in the Arpaia lab, helps organize the tastings; the guacamole he prepares specially for the occasion serves as an additional attraction. Focht has been working on avocados since 1999, the year he joined UCR as a staff member. His relationship with the campus, however, began before then; his father, now retired, was a professor on campus.

Typically, participants of the avocado tastings sample six avocados which come from UC ANR's South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. “Hass control fruit are purchased from or donated by a packing house,” Focht says.

First, participants do a visual assessment of the fruit, evaluating texture, size and color. Next they step into a room where they do the blind tastings.

“The data is compiled and used to assess, among other things, which of our new breeding selections shows promise and should be pushed for eventual release,” says Focht, whose duties include coordinating field activities, designing field layouts, generating maps and databases, selecting avocado varieties of interest, interacting with growers and the public, troubleshooting, and directing the day-to-day operations of the lab when Arpaia is away. 

Visual inspection of avocados
Focht's favorite avocado variety varies by year and season.

“Right now our 465518-99 has been performing very well,” he says, “but in former years, its peak season is February through April. In the fall, Reed is always a good fruit with good flavor and texture. I prefer a fruit that peels easily and has good flavor. If it doesn't peel clean from the skin, I tend to overlook it for something else with good flavor and convenient packaging.”

The avocado growing season varies from variety to variety. By planting out several varieties, it is possible to have avocados year round in one's garden. Focht explains that the growing season varies regionally as well.

“The season in San Luis Obispo is months later than it is in San Diego,” he says.

Most avocado acreage in California is currently in Northern San Diego County. Most avocado acreage in the U.S. is in California. Other states with avocado industries include Florida and Texas. Worldwide, avocados are grown in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Israel, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Tasting avocados.
The California drought, now in its fourth year, is a concern for avocado lovers and scholars like Focht.

“An acre of avocado trees typically requires 2.5-4 acre-feet of water per year depending on weather and other factors,” he says. “The drought is resulting in lost acreage as farmers can either not afford or not find enough water for their trees. Successful farmers are having to modify their cultural practices to stay competitive.”

The next avocado tasting at UCR will be Aug. 12, 2015. For more information about the tastings, contact Focht.

Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 at 9:26 AM

The health impacts of sugary drinks

Refined sugar (Photo: Ann Filmer)
Americans consume nearly three times the recommended amount of sugar every day, and about half the U.S. population consumes sugary drinks on any given day.

Excess sugar consumption contributes to obesity, tooth decay, early menses in girls, and chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease. To add to the damage, doctors are now attributing too much dietary sugar to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.

It's enough to make you sit up and listen to the warnings about too much soda, sugary drinks, and sugar-laden processed foods.

What is a sugary drink? It's any beverage, more or less, with added sugar or other sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup. The long list of beverages includes soda, lemonade, fruit punch, powdered fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea drinks, and many flavored milk products.

People are becoming aware of the concerns of too many sugary drinks, and steps are being taken to reduce their consumption. Some K-12 school districts across the nation are limiting sales of soda, and the City of Davis will soon require that restaurants offer milk or water as a first beverage choice with kids' meals.

UC Cooperative Extension, the county-based outreach arm of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, is partnering with health agencies and conducting public service programs for youth and families about sugary drinks. UC ANR Cooperative Extension in San Joaquin County recently presented a "Rethink Your Drink" parent workshop in conjunction with the county's Office of Education, and Solano County Cooperative Extension is working with the California Department of public health to engage youth in "Rethink Your Drink" programs.

Sarah Risorto, UC IPM Program, refills her water bottle at a UC Davis water station. (Photo: Ann Filmer)

Lucia Kaiser, UC ANR Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, co-authored a policy brief about California's rural immigrants who have poor-quality tap water, or perceive tap water to be bad. Kaiser, who is also a nutrition faculty member at UC Davis, noted that studies have found a link between water quality and consumption of sugary drinks, which is a concern in low-income communities that don't have resources for clean water.

As of this month (July 2015), UC San Francisco is no longer selling sugary beverages on its campus, and UCSF has launched a Healthy Beverage Initiative. UC Berkeley held a Sugar Challenge this year, and UC Davis is conducting a Sugar Beverage Study on women.

Scientists at UC San Francisco, UC Davis, UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute, and other universities are studying the health effects of sugar and implementing health outreach programs. And UC's Global Food Initiative is building on the momentum of excessive sugary-drink consumption.

A healthy alternative to sugary drinks? Water, of course. Many universities and public places are replacing traditional drinking fountains with water stations so that students and others can fill their own bottles and have water “on the go.” And UC President Janet Napolitano is working with the Nutrition Policy Institute on a bold and sensible request to place water on the USDA's MyPlate nutrition guidelines.

The next time you're thirsty, drink wisely to your good health.

Additional information:

Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 at 8:23 AM

California almonds have small carbon footprint compared to other protein foods

These almonds are still in the hull on the tree. Using the orchard biomass, hulls and shells for renewable power generation, soil amendment and dairy feed reduces the carbon footprint.
California produces more than 80 percent of the world's commercial almonds. Popularity of the nuts has spurred almond acreage in the state to expand from 510,000 acres in 2000 to roughly 890,000 acres in 2015, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the growing interest among consumers and food companies in the carbon footprint of food products, prompted some University of California scientists to examine how almond production affects the environment.

Research by UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists found that almonds have a relatively small carbon footprint, which could be further reduced with advanced management practices.

Two related articles published in the current issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology examine the environmental impact of this agricultural industry. Co-author Alissa Kendall, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and her colleagues noted that certain practices substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, including the strategic use of co-products, and the choice of water source and irrigation technology.

"Our research shows that 1 kilogram of California almonds typically produces less than 1 kilogram of CO2-equivalent emissions, which is a lower carbon footprint than many other nutrient- and energy-dense foods," said Kendall.

“These results include the use of almond co-products — orchard biomass, hulls and shells — for renewable power generation and dairy feed,” said Kendall. “Under ideal circumstances, which are feasible but not in place today, California almonds could become carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative, largely through the improved utilization of orchard biomass."

David Doll, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor in Merced County, agrees.

“As California farmers improve their nitrogen and water use efficiencies, they will reduce the carbon footprint,” Doll said. “This will happen as we continue to transition into a nitrogen budgeting system, which will reduce over-applications of nitrogen. Furthermore, on the other end, research conducted by Cooperative Extension has shown that the entire biomass of an orchard can be incorporated back into the soil, which increases the amount of total carbon sequestered.”

“Only a full life cycle-based model like the one we developed for this research will allow us to accurately assess whether incorporating the biomass into the soil or using it for power generation instead results in a lower net carbon footprint,” said Sonja Brodt, academic coordinator in the UC ANR Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, noting that there will be some trade-off.

The first article, "Life Cycle-based Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Almond Production, Part I: Analytical Framework and Baseline Results," is authored by Kendall, Elias Marvinney, a graduate student in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences; Brodt and Weiyuan Zhu, a UC Davis graduate student in horticulture and agronomy.

Marvinney is lead author of the second article, "Life Cycle-based Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Almond Production, Part II: Uncertainty Analysis through Sensitivity Analysis and Scenario Testing," in collaboration with Kendall and Brodt.

This research was supported by grants from the Almond Board of California and the CDFA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Brodt and Marvinney will host a webinar to discuss their life cycle assessment analyzing the environmental impacts associated with walnuts, prunes, peaches, almonds and pistachios. The researchers are quantifying energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in orchard crop production both within and beyond the farm. To join the webinar, visit https://uc-d.adobeconnect.com/orchard-lca at noon on Wednesday, July 29.

The University of California Global Food Initiative aims to put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. By building on existing efforts and creating new collaborations among UC's 10 campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initiative will develop and export solutions for food security, health and sustainability throughout California, the United States and the world.

Posted on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 10:02 AM

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