Feb 15, 2013

California's New(ish) Irrigation Laws

Although California has legislated landscape irrigation for a few years now, most of us haven't noticed it… until now.

But suddenly, homeowners applying for construction permits are getting the unpleasant surprise that a whole package of landscape documentation, including irrigation and planting plans and a slew of math, may be required as part of the permit submittal. What the…?!?

A brief history: way back in 1990 the state determined (wisely) that water is a finite and precious resource in this Mediterranean climate, and 16 years later managed to enact Assembly Bill 1881 to promote the conservation of water in the man-made landscape. (A much better history is here.)

As part of AB 1881, California drafted a Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), which defines maximum applied-water allowances and requires estimates of total landscape water usage based on calculations of plants' evapotranspiration rates and a few other factors. If that sounds complicated, it is; and a cottage industry of designers and auditors versed in not only horticulture but also irrigation principles and documentation has grown in response.

AB 1881 also mandated that by 2010, local governments adopt either the state's Model Ordinance, or a local landscape ordinance that is at least as effective as the state's in conserving water. Now, most local governments are not known for either their foresight or their ability to respond nimbly to a bureaucratic requirement. So, unsurprisingly, in 2010 quite a few cities opted to simply adopt the state's ordinance as-is; and because enforcement would require staff which would require money and perhaps cost (or at least delay) permit revenue, most were less than stringent in enforcing the new law.

The tide has turned, however, and now towns from Agoura Hills to Yucaipa have adopted local ordinances, and figured out how to enforce the requirements within their zoning permit process. As a result, many more garden designers and landscape architects have become conversant in acronyms like MAWA, ETWU, WUCOLS, ETAF, and ETo, and begun offering landscape documentation packages as part of our services. It's a lot of work — here's the MWELO submittal requirement:

§ 492.3  Elements of the Landscape Documentation Package.
(a) The Landscape Documentation Package shall include the following six (6) elements:
(1) project information;
(A) date
(B) project applicant
(C) project address (if available, parcel and/or lot number(s))
(D) total landscape area (square feet)
(E) project type (e.g., new, rehabilitated, public, private, cemetery, homeowner-installed)
(F) water supply type (e.g., potable, recycled, well) and identify the local retail water purveyor if the
applicant is not served by a private well
(G) checklist of all documents in Landscape Documentation Package
(H) project contacts to include contact information for the project applicant and property owner
(I) applicant signature and date with statement, “I agree to comply with the requirements of the water
efficient landscape ordinance and submit a complete Landscape Documentation Package”.
(2) Water Efficient Landscape Worksheet;
(A) hydrozone information table
(B) water budget calculations
1. Maximum Applied Water Allowance (MAWA)
2. Estimated Total Water Use (ETWU)
(3) soil management report;
(4) landscape design plan;
(5) irrigation design plan; and
(6) grading design plan. 

Additionally, the Landscape Documentation Package is usually required to be signed by a licensed landscape architect, licensed landscape contractor, or certified irrigation auditor. Which means that in addition to being a lot of work, it's not cheap.

Fortunately, WELO requirements do not apply to every project. If a permit isn't required, for instance, or if the total affected landscape area is less than 5,000 square feet, the state MWELO wouldn't apply. But since most cities have their own ordinances now, the only way to know for sure is to call your local building department and ask for a copy of the local WELO.

There are a couple of pieces of good news in all this. First, if you're clear on your WELO requirements at the outset of your construction project (i.e. at the beginning of design, not the day before you plan to submit your plans), there's no reason a qualified professional can't prepare your documentation well in time for permitting.

Second, the fact is that WELO requirements—although a bureaucratic tar pit—are saving water. They are forcing all of us to reconsider gratuitous lawns, to learn our water-thrifty plants, and to group those plants into sensible hydrozones, which is just good horticultural practice. As landowners and designers and stewards of the earth, we all are getting a little bit better in our roles.

Imagine that.