What Long Beach is doing to stay green during an epic drought

With its dying trees, sad stumps and crusty brown grass, it’s clear to many drivers that the Traffic Circle has seen better days.

“It looks pretty bad right now,” said Councilman Daryl Supernaw, whose 4th District includes the East Long Beach roundabout. “We’ve definitely had lots of emails and phone calls about the conditions.”

The local landmark is one of the casualties as Long Beach, like all of California, faces epic drought conditions, and officials say the cost of watering parks and medians could reach into the several millions of dollars if the region sees another dry season.

The 2017-18 season, which ended in June, was one of the driest on record with Long Beach Airport recording just 3.65 inches of rain—more than 7 inches below average.

Faced with “embarrassing” conditions, the city earlier this year approved an extra $900,000 for water to get parks and medians in better shape for summer.

And while the 2019 proposed budget includes an additional $1.2 million in one-time funding to water the parks, Long Beach will have tough choices if drought conditions persist, said Gerardo Mouet, who took over in June as the new Parks, Recreation and Marine director.

“The one-time money is not an ideal amount, but it’s a very good step forward,” he said.

Mouet said the $900,000 this year was a big step to get things greener, but in the long run, Long Beach would need an extra $2 million a year to keep parks and medians in good condition without rain.

Heartwell Park Field 6 before it was watered this year through $900,000 in extra funding.

Same park after it was watered through extra funding.

Last year, Parks and Recreation spent $2.3 million for water irrigation, of which about 60 percent was reclaimed water. The cost for the city’s water irrigation has increased by more than 14 percent since 2013.

Mouet said the costs will likely increase as Long Beach faces ongoing drought conditions coupled with an aging irrigation system.

“Ultimately, the city would need new irrigation system in some parks,” he said. “But for now, we have to get creative and be smart with how we use our water.”

In one solution, the city is adding irrigation control sensors that can detect rain and water levels and will automatically shut off sprinklers. The sprinklers previously had to be turned off manually through a computer system, he said.

He said he’s also experimenting with different types of grass in brown patches where common grass won’t grow.

In a park plagued with brown patches near the beach, for example, he’s currently testing a grass called paspalum that does better in salty soil.

Mouet said the city was considering replacing the grass with drought resistant landscaping for about $100,000. The paspalum, if it grows, would cost much less, he said.

Parks, Recreation, and Marine Director Gerardo Mouet walks through El Dorado Park West in Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

In some cases, like the problem with the Traffic Circle, the irrigation is more complicated.

Supernaw said the Traffic Circle’s vegetation started dying during the 2015/16 drought when the area received less than 6.5 inches of rain.

Because of the location, the roundabout’s sprinklers aren’t linked to the reclaimed water irrigation system, so the problem grew worse as the city grappled with a state law mandating that only recycled water be used for medians.

Supernaw said the grass died as soon as the city stopped watering.

“In fact, it happened so fast that we were accused of using herbicide,” he said. 

Before the city could reach a plan, the area was drenched with nearly 20 inches of rain for the 2016/17 season and the grass returned to its former glory.

Traffic Circle during the rainy winter in 2016/17

Traffic Circle on August 24, 2018. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

But now, as drought conditions return, Long Beach is once again considering options.

In one option that might streamline things, Supernaw said, the city is considering transferring responsibility of watering medians from Parks and Recreation to Public Works.

As for the Traffic Circle, some long-term options include drought-tolerant landscaping or even an art sculpture, he added.

“It was built for the 1932 Olympics, and it would be nice to have it in pristine condition for our upcoming Olympics,” he said. “We definitely need to find a solution so we can have a fresher look.” 

Mouet said the city expects to have an action plan by late fall.

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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