Patrick Sherwood describes the moment that a tree branch collapsed on his family of four at a child’s birthday party at Whaley Park last weekend like a scene out of the 1928 silent film “Steamboat Bill Jr.”
In that movie, silent film star Buster Keaton stands up after a tornado passes through a town only to have a house fall on top of him. He’s saved by the fact that his body fit perfectly through the home’s upstairs window.
At Whaley Park last Saturday, Sherwood’s wife and 17-month-old daughter played Keaton’s part, and in place of the house was a large branch of a carob tree that unexpectedly snapped off.
Sherwood said that his wife suffered some scratches from the smaller branches, but a larger V-shaped portion of the tree fell perfectly around his wife and daughter sparing them any greater injuries.
“In reality, we just looked up and heard the branch cracking,” Sherwood said. “She was kind of surprised at how quickly it came down.”
Tree health has been an ongoing concern in the city for years. With drier weather becoming the new normal and a lack of funding in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, trees often go untrimmed and are only removed on an emergency basis with one-time funding allocated by the City Council. A city report from earlier this year said that 14,000 of the city’s 29,000 park trees are dead, diseased or dying.
A 2016 report from the City Auditor estimated that out of the 29,500 park trees, 27% of them were dead or in critical condition. The report said that only 44% of the city’s park trees were in good or very good condition and identified 2,000 trees for removal.
After several more years of drought, an April 2021 feasibility report analyzing how the city could acquire and develop more open space painted an even grimmer picture of the city’s park maintenance budget, which is is underfunded and provides for less than half of the needed water for the city’s 167 parks.
“The City has a $20 million park maintenance shortfall,” the report cautioned, noting that adding more space would likely make the situation worse without more funding.
Progress has been slow in addressing those dead and dying trees and others that need trimming, said Jane Grobaty, a spokesperson for the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department.
Grobaty said that just 1,800 of the 14,000 have been addressed since 2016, or an average of about 360 trees per year. She said the lion’s share of 1,800 trees were cut down in 2017 with one-time funding from Measure A, the city’s sales tax that puts revenue into public safety and infrastructure needs.
A 2016 work estimate from Great Scott Tree Service, one of the city’s vendors that trims trees, showed 39 trees at Whaley that needed trimming or removal. The carob tree that had a branch snap off Saturday was not on that list and a representative from Great Scott did not return a request for comment on whether the hundreds of trees identified that year for service across 15 city parks were actually addressed.
While it’s unclear what led to carob tree incident over the weekend, inadequate watering is one of the largest contributing factors to overall tree health. The department’s irrigation budget is about $2.1 million per year with occasional year-to-year infusions of one-time allocations from the City Council. Last year the budget included an additional $600,000 for critical water needs to prevent safety issues and urban tree failures. But it’s still not enough, Grobaty said, adding that city crews target trees for watering first before grass or other plants.
“We’re doing the best we can but there’s always going to be someone that thinks things can be greener,” Grobaty said. “We’re prioritizing the best we can.”
Don Hodel, an emeritus environmental and landscape horticulture advisor with the University of California, said it’s unclear what metric the city is using to determine that trees are only getting 40% of the water they need, but if it’s based on evapotranspiration—the amount of water that an area loses and needs to be replaced—that could mean up to 30 inches per year for Long Beach.
Generally, plants and trees need at least 60% to 70% of the water they lose to be replaced, and if trees are only getting 12 inches replaced through irrigation, that opens them up to a host of issues including disease, an increase in pests, defoliation and in some cases they can become hazardous, Hodel said.
“As global warming becomes more acute it becomes more important for us to keep up our urban forests,” Hodel said, noting that not many people stick up for trees.
“Trees are such long-term investments for us, to not give them what they need is very shortsighted,” Hodel said.
The city generally trims trees between September and December to avoid issues involving nesting birds, but can cut down or trim trees at any time if they’re considered dangerous.
Councilman Daryl Supernaw, who represents the area where Whaley is located, said funding for tree maintenance has been inadequate but he will be asking the city manager to look at tree-trimming policies for areas near walkways and other places people gather.
“We need to look at trimming these back especially in places that are heavily used,” Supernaw said. “These are above picnic benches.”
Park trees are maintained separately from street trees, which are located on medians and in residential parkways and are maintained by Public Works. The most numerous street tree in the city, the magnolia, is under assault from an infestation of tree scale insects that has spread across the city.
Street trees accounted for tens of thousands of dollars in claims filed against the city between March 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2020 that ranged from tree limbs falling onto parked cars, tree roots causing plumbing and foundation issues for homes, and one person who said they were injured while slipping in the sticky tree sap produced by the tree scales feeding on a magnolia tree.
Sherwood said he hasn’t given much thought to filing a claim against the city, expressing a distaste for the country’s litigious culture, but added that he couldn’t speak for others who suffered more than the scrapes and bruises his family has from the encounter with the carob tree.
He plans to learn about the city’s tree situation but the branch collapse has already taught him one lesson, he said.
“I learned that I’m not as fast as I thought I was,” Sherwood said.