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Autumn in the Air

by Charlene Burgi

There is a change in the air. The afternoon thermometer still registers in the 80s, but evening temperatures are rapidly dropping. The cooler evenings find me and Jack spending more time outside assessing what is needed in the garden before winter hits. And we pray it comes with abundant rain and snow here in Lassen County, just as that wish extends for ample water supplies for the entire West Coast.

Our evening assessments determined our first priority is to add more mulch to protect the plants’ root systems this winter. Refreshing organic mulch should be done every other year, if not annually. During the summer months, organic mulch seems to break down more rapidly than during the winter months. But that’s not a bad thing: The decomposed mulch adds nutrients to the soil that, in turn, further break down to feed the plants. Additionally, the cool blanket of mulch in the summer miraculously becomes a warm comforter to those same roots in the cold weather.

Dogs resting in garden mulch

Pups enjoying the mulch

We often use a metal probe to determine where more mulch is needed. We find the sunny gardens require more than the shade garden where the elements are not as harsh. In addition, with the pups using the sunny gardens as a personal playground, the mulch in those areas has a tendency to wander off. The differing depths of mulch needed in various areas can throw off our calculations. How do you figure out how much is needed?

Determining the quantity of mulch required for adequate coverage can be more specific than a wild guess about how many premeasured bags of bark to buy. A tape measure, paper, and a pencil are the only tools needed to come up with the cubic yardage. Once you know how many cubic yards are needed, you can purchase in bulk from the landscape materials yard, which may be more favorable to the pocketbook. Are you ready for this exercise?

  1. Measure the length and width of the planting area you need to mulch.
  2. Multiply those two numbers together to find the square footage of the area.
  3. Divide the square footage by 9 to convert to square yards (there are 9 square feet in a square yard).
  4. Determine the depth of mulch needed.
  5. Divide that number of inches needed into 36 (a yard equals 36 inches).
  6. Then divide that answer into the square yards to come up with the cubic yards of mulch needed.
Measuring mulch depth

Measuring mulch depth

Did I lose you? Here is an example. I know my shade garden is 20 feet by 30 feet, which equals 600 square feet. When I divide that number by 9, it equals 66.67 square yards. I want a thick 4-inch layer of mulch in the shade garden, but the mulch is already 2 inches deep, so I only need an additional 2 inches of mulch. I divide the 2 inches I need into 36 inches to come up with the number 18. I then divide 18 into the square yardage and find I need 3.7 cubic yards of mulch for my shade garden area. If I didn’t have any bark in the shade garden, but still wanted 4 inches of mulch, I would use the same formula but divide the 36 inches by 4. The answer of 9 is then divided into the 66.67 square yards equaling 7.4 cubic yards.

There are other ways to calculate this. I am certain many of you will be willing to share your formula with others facing this quandary but wishing to do the right thing for their plants. As with gardening, we all have our own ways of achieving the bottom line. Most of us work out problems in the fashion we were taught. Jack taught this method to me many years ago and it stuck. Does anyone have another formula that is easier? For gardeners who feel math-challenged, MMWD’s cubic calculator is another option!

Now might be a good time to go for an evening walk in the garden. What do you find on your list of things to do? Are the pruning tools sharpened? Are spring-blooming bulbs needed to fill in an empty space while requiring little water? Or is it just a pleasant night to take in the beauty?

As founder and executive director of Cool the Earth, Carleen Cullen knows it is important to “walk the walk” at home. She and her family have solar panels on their rooftop, drive an electric vehicle that is 100% powered by the sun, and had reduced their indoor water use. In fact, their water use was below average in every month—except for summertime. Carleen described their summer water bill as “our guilty secret.”

Cullen yard

The Cullen family’s new yard

But not anymore. Carleen and her family recognized that the culprit behind their high summer water use was what was going on outdoors. Keeping their yard and garden green was making their household less green. As part of a yard renovation, they got rid of their lawn and installed artificial grass (made partly from recycled product), replaced high-water-use plants with California native drought-tolerant ones, and abandoned their old irrigation system in favor of a new drip system. Carleen also asked her kids to stop washing the car with the hose and switched to a waterless car wash method.

When Carleen opened their most recent water bill, she found for the first time that they were below average in the summer. Her family’s consumption went from 25,000 gallons last year to just under 15,000 gallons for the same period this year. By saving water they are saving energy, and as an added bonus they are saving money, too—their “guilty secret” summer bill plunged from $367 to just $100!

 

Are you an MMWD customer with a conservation success story to share? Tell us in the comments below, or email us and we may share your story on our blog.

Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

As a direct response to the drought, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is dramatically increasing its efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the communities adjacent to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed by adding extra crews of people and, this year, goats. A 12-person crew began the first week of September and will continue working into October grooming the existing fuelbreaks bordering the communities of Fairfax, San Anselmo, Ross, Kentfield, and Mill Valley. The work is funded by an $80,000 drought relief grant from PG&E, with administrative support from FIRESafe MARIN.

Later in the fall, MMWD will also receive an additional $75,000 in fuel-load reduction work, courtesy of the Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Funding for this work is part of a $678.4 million drought relief package approved by the state legislature. The CCNB crew will concentrate their work in the hills above Bon Tempe Reservoir where sudden oak death has negatively impacted forest health and increased the risk of wildfire.

In partnership with Marin County Parks, MMWD is conducting a six-week trial using a herd of 30 goats to reduce fire fuel loads in the hills above Deer Park in Fairfax. The trial period began the first week of September. The goats will be grazing native fuels and invasive weeds on both MMWD and Marin County Parks land. Staff will be monitoring the goats’ productivity rate, long-term ecological effects, and cost. The goal is to evaluate the role of goats in MMWD’s integrated pest management program.

Job Well Done

by Charlene Burgi

Low water at Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake on August 25, 2014, looking west from Pit River Bridge (California Department of Water Resources)

The email messages and news about drought conditions are flooding my inbox and my senses. Pictures of Lake Oroville and Folsom depict mere ribbons where large bodies of waters once resided. Driving by Shasta Lake and the Pit River, I experienced a shocking eyewitness view of the voids where water once lapped banks and rippled along the water course. All around are signs of extreme drought conditions.

MMWD is faring better than much of the state, with reservoirs at 92% of average storage for this time of year. Those numbers reflect the great job everyone in Marin is doing right this minute. What amazes me is that the district’s seven reservoirs are totally dependent on rainfall. They are not fed by large rivers or snowfall from afar. The water saved in those reservoirs is the direct result of local weather conditions and local water conservation. With that said, congratulations on the job you are doing!

And what are you doing to help others find tricks to employ in their homes? I know MMWD is offering a variety of resources from on-site water-use surveys, to rebates for water-saving devices, to free shutoff nozzles for garden hoses (pick up yours at the Corte Madera office). But my curiosity and thirst for knowledge want to get more personal. What are you doing? How are you educating your family about water conservation? What tips can you share that others can utilize?

I, for one, sadly let the vegetable garden go. Not only are we conserving water by eliminating the irrigation to that area, but the multitude of squirrels and rabbits have devoured every fruit and veggie that began to resemble something edible. The mild winters have made way for prolific garden predators looking for anything to eat. Except for the asparagus, no vegetation was spared from the night marauders. Chain-link gates across the greenhouse door (left open for ventilation) made a perfect ladder for visitors to gain entry to coveted tomatoes. Nothing was spared including the basil, parsley, and Swiss chard. Forgive my rant. Once again, I digress!

Peony before and after pruning

Peony before and after pruning

You might be interested in another conservation method that works. You can slightly stress perennial plants that will go dormant, such as peonies. Keep roots just moist enough, but cut back or thin out vegetation to minimize the irrigation needed to keep viable what little foliage is left. The remaining canopy will still provide shade for the roots and crown. The smaller canopy of the plant will reduce the water needed. (The Weekly Watering Schedule lists irrigation needs for different canopy sizes.) Be advised not to remove more than a third of any plant when pruning, and make your thinning cuts back to an outside bud.

Thanks for taking the time to share what led you to a successful conservation effort. Keep up the great work!

Planning Ahead

by Charlene Burgi

Rumor has it that we are in for an El Niño winter. I am not certain what that means since every report comes up with various predictions that span from getting drenched to mild inclement weather to continued drought.

Predictions are something to approach with a discerning ear. The fall/winter season would be better met with preparedness. Preparedness comes with paying attention to the indicators that surround us and acting prior to an event.

For example, a friend reported attending the Ready Marin program. When the earthquake struck in the wee hours this past Sunday, she was prepared with flashlights and necessary tools at hand (if needed) to turn off gas and water supplies. Yet others reported they woke up in a half stupor and attempted to collect their thoughts as to where they would even find a flashlight.

This week the news reported a water main break in San Francisco. One gentleman was capturing this precious commodity by the bucketful before it disappeared into the cavernous storm drain. He was prepared with whatever collection method he could find and conserved as much as he could.

Conserving water is more than turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and exchanging high-water-use for high-efficiency fixtures in the house. It is more than switching to a smart controller or adjusting your controller to reflect the current ET loss for the week. These steps are extremely important for saving the water in our reservoirs, but by being prepared and making the best use of the water sources at hand we can conserve even more.

Each winter we anticipate rainfall, but are we prepared to utilize the falling rain? If we live on any kind of slope, we can create multiple bioswales running across the length of the slope to slow down the runoff. A bioswale requires some trenching, compacting the lower edge of the bioswale for erosion, and backfilling with porous material, such as bark. Planting two of my favorite deep-rooted shrubs—Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)—will help penetrate the clay soils above the swale and move the water deeper than the trenched bioswale.

Aster novae-angliae

Aster novae-angliae

Another idea is to collect the water from the downspout into trenches to carry water to a rain garden or meadow at least 10 feet away from the house foundation. Choose plant material that will thrive on the abundant rainwater that will collect there in the winter. Use rain garden plants such as Aster novae-anglaie or Lobelia cardinalis that attract butterflies and bees and provide nectar in the summer months.

Try designing a dry creek bed to capture the precious liquid from our rains. Wind the bed through the garden to deliver water to your trees or shrubs along the way. Tuck native grasses and wildflowers along the edges or plant some color into the dry creek bed. This task requires preparing now for winter.

These suggestions will take more than a shovel and wheel barrow. It will take planning and a list of equipment as follows:

Flowers in dry creek bed

Dry creek bed color (photo courtesy of Marie Shepard)

    • Soil, sand, clay, organic mulch
    • Building materials and construction (if built)
    • Organic compost
    • Tools (tractor, rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.)
    • Vegetation (seeds, plants, trees)
    • Gravel, rocks (large and small)

Are you prepared for the task at hand or will you watch the precious wet stuff disappear into the local storm drain this winter?

It is Labor Day weekend. Why not take a ride to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and glean ideas for imitating nature in your own garden?

MMWD reservoir levels are now 92% of average, which may be a surprise to many during this dry year. Our reservoir levels have actually held steady at this same ratio for several months now, thanks in part to customer conservation efforts and also to water system operational changes. The more water we can keep in the reservoirs now, the better off we are later.

Here are the current water statistics:

Reservoir Levels: As of August 25, reservoir storage is 53,843 acre-feet,* or 68% of capacity. The average for this date is 58,648 acre-feet, or 74% of capacity. Total capacity is 79,566 acre-feet.

Rainfall: Rainfall this year to date (July 1-August 25) is 0.04 inches. Average for the same period is 0.12 inches.

Water Use: Water use for the week of August18-25 averaged 27.32 million gallons per day, compared to 31.79 million gallons per day for the same week last year.

Supply Source: Last week we averaged 20.03 million gallons per day from our reservoirs and 7.29 million gallons per day from the Russian River.

Creek Releases: During the month of July 2014 MMWD released 171 million gallons, or a total of 524 acre-feet, into Lagunitas and Walker creeks in west Marin for habitat enhancement.

Water use and reservoir figures are updated weekly and can be found on our Water Watch page.

*One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons

by Robin McKillop, Water Conservation Specialist Supervisor

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.

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