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by Robin McKillop

With the “lazy” days of summer almost over and schools throughout Marin already starting the 2014-15 school year, there’s no better time than now to start thinking about MMWD’s Water Wonders education programs. Our fun, informative programs offer something for everyone, including indoor and outdoor educational opportunities, hands-on water conservation and restoration activities, whole-school assemblies in English and Spanish, service learning projects, and school bus reimbursements. Last year, MMWD’s Water Wonders programs provided education to thousands of K through 12th students throughout Marin. This year, we expect similar demand, as water seems to be on everybody’s mind with California’s ongoing drought. By participating in the Water Wonders program, students will learn about drought, and gain an understanding that droughts are an unpredictable and naturally recurring part of California’s variable climate. Students will also learn about simple, positive actions they can take to conserve water at home and at school.

MMWD classroom presentationThrough MMWD’s “Do-It-Yourself Water Conservation” program, students are empowered to take water conserving actions at home—something that’s always important, but even more so now, during these times of drought. Students learn to evaluate their household’s water use and identify ways to conserve water by checking their toilets for leaks, installing water-efficient showerheads and faucet aerators, and reviewing their irrigation systems, among other things. MMWD provides free showerheads and faucet aerators to households that need them.

The Water Wonders brochure provides detailed information about all of our programs as well as contact information for making reservations. Programs are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly. All programs are offered free of charge and are designed to support California education standards while fostering water conservation and environmental stewardship.

We hope you’ll join us this school year! The first step is to make a reservation for one or more of our water education programs.

by Charlene Burgi

Over the years, many questions have popped up regarding the best way to irrigate. Some customers asked if it was best to irrigate a little every day, or every two days, etc. Others asked if it was best to irrigate in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Some wanted to know what irrigation method is best for hillside planting.

Overspray, an irrigation don't

Overspray: an irrigation don’t

And, over the years, many of you have heard me say to irrigate effectively as well as efficiently. To irrigate efficiently is to apply water to the root zone of the plant and replace just the amount of water lost due to evapotranspiration (ET). ET is the loss of water through transpiration from plants (we perspire, plants transpire) and through evaporation from soil. MMWD uses data from its weather stations to calculate the rate of ET and generate the Weekly Watering Schedule. Replacing just the amount of water lost keeps the plant and surrounding areas in balance, but this alone is not necessarily effective.

For example, suppose the ET loss for the week is one inch. A person could water a tiny bit daily, replacing just 1/7th inch of water each day to total one inch for the week. However, that tiny bit of water would barely wet the surface of the ground and evaporate quickly. Much better would be to apply a half inch twice a week or one inch of water weekly to get down to the root system of the plant. Water at that depth will take longer to evaporate—especially if there is a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. That would be effective as well as efficient.

Another means of being more effective is to avoid irrigating when it’s windy or during the heat of the day. Typically, there is little wind during the evenings or early morning. If you set your controller to turn on after sunset or before sunrise, you’ll save water and comply with MMWD’s new daytime irrigation prohibition. Since your irrigation system will be in action while you sleep, do a quick monthly system check—running each station for a minute—to look for blown emitters or misaligned nozzles. During the month between system checks, simply look around in the morning. Do you see a puddle? Are the sidewalks wet? Are you finding dry spots or wilting plants? These are signs that adjustments or repairs may be needed.

Watering hillside plantings is a challenge in anyone’s book. There are steps that can be taken to make this irrigation challenge both effective and efficient. First, use very low-flow methods of irrigating such as drip emitters or MP rotators for overhead irrigation. Next, use multiple start and stop times on your controller. Some controllers call this the cycle/ soak program. Water for a brief time before you see any sign of runoff. At that time, program the controller to turn off. Let that water soak into the hillside for 20-30 minutes before setting the controller to start again. Continue the cycle/ soak until the water penetrates to the depth of the root system—but not until you find water run down the street!

Be water smart. A few moments to adjust your controller will yield water savings and happy plants. And please take a few minutes to become familiar with the current water conservation regulations.

In response to the continuing drought, the State Water Resources Control Board announced new emergency regulations in July designed to reduce outdoor water use statewide. To fully comply with the state, on August 19 the MMWD Board of Directors adopted an ordinance amending the water waste section of the district’s code.

Most of the new state regulations mirror water waste restrictions MMWD has had in place for some time. However, two changes may affect you: Irrigating between 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. is prohibited, as is using a hose without a shutoff nozzle. We’ve long recommended that our customers follow these water-saving practices; now, these recommendations are requirements.

We appreciate your cooperation!

Prohibited Water Uses

Under state and district water conservation regulations, the following are prohibited:

  • NEW: Irrigating between 9 a.m. – 7 p.m, except for system testing and repair
  • NEW: Using a hose without a shutoff nozzle
  • Allowing irrigation water to runoff or overspray the irrigated area
  • Hosing down sidewalks, driveways, and other hard-surfaced areas
  • Non-recirculating decorative fountains

FREE hose shutoff nozzles are available at MMWD’s Corte Madera office (one per household, please).

by Andrea Williams, Vegetation Ecologist

This is installment seven of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

Serpentine reedgrass (Calamagrostis ophitidis) is rare. We have tons of it.

Such seemingly incongruous statements happen quite a bit on Mt. Tam, through the magic of the “Matrix of Rarity.” It depends on the scale at which you look. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS), which reviews the distribution of and threats to California’s flora, keeps an inventory of plants and the degree of rarity they display. So statewide (and worldwide), there may be fewer than 100,000 individuals, but if all those individuals are in a three-square-mile area they may seem abundant in that spot.

  Abundant where found Few plants per population
Broadly distributed Common species, e.g. purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) Often rare, e.g. semaphore grass (Pleuropogon)—next month’s topic!
Narrowly distributed Often rare, e.g. serpentine reedgrass Nearly always rare

Almost half of our rare plants are restricted to serpentine soils; like wetlands and beaches, these habitat types are finite. Often, rare plants in these spots will be quite common and you may wonder why they’re considered rare at all. Mt. Tam manzanita is actually so common it’s the dominant plant over most of our serpentine soils. Serpentine reedgrass is pickier still, preferring to grow at the edge and in the interstices of serpentine chaparral.

Serpentine reedgrass

Serpentine reedgrass (Calamagrostis ophitidis)

Unlike Mt. Tam manzanita, though, serpentine reedgrass can be found outside Marin in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and Lake counties, although we do have the bulk of it. This handsome perennial grass raises fluffy, open spikes one to three feet above clumps of deep green upright leaves. Some of the finest serpentine reedgrass grassland—a rare vegetation type—can be found along Pine Mountain Road opposite Azalea Hill.

Another factor feeding into a plant’s status is the threat to its populations. Serpentine reedgrass populations on Mt. Tamlapais are pretty stable: No one is bulldozing populations to build things, they don’t need fire to germinate, their habitat isn’t being taken over, no diseases are wiping them out. But in other counties that may not be the case. Like with the drought, we need to consider ourselves lucky that we are where we are and have what we have (90% of average water storage and 40 rare plant species), and continue to conserve.

Be Prepared

by Charlene Burgi

Bald Mountain Fire

Bald Mountain Fire

The dense smoke finally lifted from the valley floor where we live here in Lassen. The hundreds of firefighters, trucks, and fire equipment have done their job well. The lightning fires are finally extinguished in this neck of California. While friends were evacuated from their homes—some moving their horses at two o’clock in the morning—firefighters worked diligently around the clock and saved homes from the wildland fires.

A recent ride to the tiny town of Day, where one of the many fires started, spoke to me of fire danger. While homes showed good fire clearance, the open unattended properties told a different story. “Ladder” fuel was thick: Dry grass and shrubs choked the pine forest floor along the one-and-only 10-mile road into town. Fortunately for those living there, the lightning struck on the hilltops and the wind carried the fire north, away from the town and homes nestled below.

Seeing the area brought me back several years to before my employment with MMWD. A portion of my work at that time was to educate homeowners about the danger of wildland fires in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties and what people could do to mitigate that threat. The road into Day made me think of the one-way roads in Fairfax, Corte Madera, and Mill Valley where fire engines require special clearances just to get around the tight switchback roads leading to the top of many tree-studded hills. Creating clearances often required removing privacy trees and shrubs, as well as plants known to contain oils that feed fire. Some homeowners embraced that education while others resisted, thinking a fire could never happen where they live.

Horse grazing

Mission accomplished: Cash at work clearing weeds

Fire safety becomes critical in your thinking process when you live in “brush country” as the insurance companies label this area, otherwise known as SRA (State Responsibility Area). Our home and surrounding land is inspected annually by CalFire to make certain the ground is clear and trees are limbed up to at least 10 feet. It is an inspection that I welcome and appreciate. I can honestly thank the donkeys and horses for their work clearing the ground and Jack’s manpower and chainsaws for limbing up the trees. We designed the landscaped areas with trees and shrubs chosen for their low water use and high tolerance to fire. Plant choices are good, but maintenance—including removing dry vegetation—is imperative. Additional insurance is keeping the landscaping well-irrigated, which is a challenge during the drought we are experiencing.

What can you do to protect your home from fire? First, remove all dead and dying debris from your property. Remove tree limbs that are less than 10 feet from the ground or that overhang your home. Keep wood piles away from your home. Add a stone retaining wall if your home was built within a natural “chimney” such as a canyon or ravine. Create a large “green” zone around your home to make it difficult for ground fire to encroach. This area can include patios, stone walls, low-growing groundcovers as suggested by CalFire, swimming pools, and the like. For the next zone further away from the house, choose fire-resistant species and leave space between plants to prevent the spread of fire.

Lastly, have a list handy of all your important paperwork, pictures, and valuables. Friends here scanned pictures and paperwork and saved them to a cloud file before they were asked to evacuate.

Are you fire safe? This is a good weekend to investigate how you can protect your property better.

This is the second in a series of posts by MMWD’s interns, summer helpers, and watershed aides about their experiences at the district. Read the previous post here.

by Lauren Valenti, Water Treatment Intern

When I was young I knew I wanted to become a scientist. I pictured myself wearing a lab coat and figuring out how stuffed worked and why. I am very proud to be doing just that—specifically studying water treatment and quality. I got my degree from Sonoma State University with a concentration in Water Quality and Hazardous Waste Management. When I found out I would become one of the first interns to work at one of Marin Municipal Water District’s water treatment plants, I was elated to start working.

I was placed at the Bon Tempe Water Treatment Plant located on Mt. Tamalpais. Bon Tempe is an amazing facility; Lake Bon Tempe is our main source of water. Water flows to our plant and through it by gravity alone. This facility can act as an emergency relief plant serving Marin County because it can produce water directly to the public with very little to no power at all.

I was treated just like a normal trainee while accompanying operators to monitor chemical feeding and water quality tests in our own lab at the plant. It might not sound hard, but when put on a four-hour schedule of rounds, lab work, calculations, chemical deliveries, washing filters, filling out paperwork, and constantly monitoring multiple computer screens, one’s day and/or night can become demanding. Yes, nights too! The plant is always running—24 hours a day, seven days a week, including all holidays.

The experience overall has been invaluable for me. As a district MMWD sets high standards that surpass many federal and state regulations. This is an outstanding achievement when numerous different departments and many individuals are relentlessly working as one. I have been privileged to work with many other men and women who exhibit an overwhelming sense of professionalism in a field that I truly care about and see a future for myself in, thanks to MMWD.

by Dan Carney, Water Conservation Manager

Small grass area for children's play yard

Children’s play yard (photo and design by Michelle Derviss)

If you are looking for an ideal landscape area to have a picnic, play games with your kids, or rough and tumble with the family dog, a lawn may be a good choice.

When properly cared for, lawns have many environmental benefits: They clean and cool the air, filter storm water, produce oxygen, and require much less water than you might think—lawns are commonly overwatered by as much as five-times! As a rule of thumb, unless it’s the middle of summer and the lawn is in full sun all day long, a healthy lawn only needs to be watered one day per week if it’s not raining. If it needs more, chances are your lawn needs some help.

Common environmental problems with lawns occur when people overwater, use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, do not compost clippings, mow too often, and have a larger lawn than they actually use. This article focuses on the essential things you need to know in order to successfully grow healthy lawn grass in an environmentally responsible, Marin-friendly manner.

But first, ask yourself this question: Do you really need a traditional lawn at all? If your answer is no, then please consider planting a no-mow meadow of native grasses, low-water groundcover, or other drought-adapted plants. Even when perfectly maintained, lawns require more water than any other landscape plant and are best reserved for landscape areas where they will be actively used rather than just a pretty green surface to look at. If you have a lawn area you want to convert into a low-water using garden, check out this video to learn how to sheet mulch. Then, browse our conservation coupons to find discounts on mulch and other supplies from local retailers.

If you still choose to have a lawn on your property, here are the basics of Marin-friendly lawn care:

  • Incorporate a generous amount of organic compost into the soil (1-2 cubic yards per 100 square feet).
  • Select a drought-tolerant grass species.
  • Apply enough organic fertilizer to maintain plant health but not to stimulate fast growth.
  • Irrigate with a high-efficiency irrigation system, and adjust watering times frequently to match seasonal plant demand. Never water between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., the time when 97% of evapotranspiration occurs.
  • Mow infrequently, use a manual or electric mower, leave the grass blades 2-4 inches tall, and compost the clippings.
  • Use graywater, rainwater, or recycled water whenever it is available.

By following these basic steps, you will be training your lawn grass to develop a deep and extensive root system—the key to growing a drought-tolerant lawn with the most environmental benefits and the fewest problems. MMWD offers a number of free services to help you make your landscape Marin-friendly. Visit our Conservation page today to schedule a free water use survey through our Conservation Assistance Program (CAP), sign up for a Marin Master Gardener Garden Walk, and take advantage of great rebate offers for smart irrigation controllers. And, be sure to sign up for MMWD’s Weekly Watering Schedule to get updated watering information for your climate zone delivered to your email box each week.

 

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