As the drought drags through its fourth year, Palo Alto's parched trees are dying in greater numbers, prompting city officials to expand watering services and seek help from the public.
From dead pines at El Camino Park to dying magnolias on Alma Street, the impacts of California's drought on Palo Alto's proud canopy aren't hard to spot. Over the past month, residents have used the city's reporting service 3-1-1 to bring attention to dying trees near Rinconada Pool and by the Cubberley Community Center athletic fields. And neighborhood message boards are starting to buzz about the topic, with residents sharing tree-caring tips on Nextdoor.com groups.
City officials have acknowledged that many trees simply won't be saved. So far in the current fiscal year, the city has removed more than 400 trees. In the prior year, the number was about 350. In eight of the last 10 years, the number has been less than 250 (in 2007, it was fewer than 200).
Because the city has about 35,000 street- and park trees (29,000 of the former, and 6,000 of the latter), the current fiscal year marks the first time that the tree removals make up more than 1 percent of the entire population.
"While it's not cause for immediate alarm, it surely does prompt some action and attention to this issue," city Urban Forester Walter Passmore said. "We feel like if this continues over the long term, we're going to have to have a much more significant response to the drought."
The issue has also become more urgent for the council, with both Mayor Karen Holman and Councilman Pat Burt recently bringing attention during council meetings to the drought's impact on the city's leafy canopy. Burt said he has heard from a number of residents and tree advocates that "a lot of our street median trees are appearing to be in jeopardy." He urged staff to get information out to the public about this trend so that some people can take care of street trees, even during a time of water conservation.
"We lose those trees, and it's going to be 50 years to get them back to that level of canopy," Burt said. "I think there's real concern that we may be in that situation."
During his presentation Tuesday, Passmore highlighted the immediate actions that the city is taking to address the drought's impact on local trees. The city is conducing what he called "rapid assessments" to identify which trees should get watering priority. Delivery of water will be increased to these trees so that they can get one or two waterings before the rains hopefully arrive in November, he said.
The city has also quadrupled the number of trucks currently delivering the water to parched trees. The city's sole water truck has seen its work hours extended from 40 hours a week to between 60 and 70. Another truck has been commissioned on a contract basis. Two more have been rented and staffed with operators, Passmore said. But even that effort will only allow the city to water about 7,000 trees per month, which is roughly 20 percent of the arborial population.
Engaging the public to help save the trees remains a work in progress. Recently, the city created a brochure about tree care that it has been distributing at workshops and put together and compiled a press release filled with tips. It encourages hand-water or drip irrigation rather than sprinklers and spray irrigation and advises people to water "gradually and deeply, applying water slowly and evenly to the tree's root zone." Mature trees can be watered about once a month, according to the city.
In their discussion Tuesday, Parks and Recreation commissioners acknowledged that local and statewide calls for conservation during drought complicate the effort to support trees. Commissioner Abbie Knopper called the report from Passmore "very depressing."
"Everyone has been told to conserve water, that 'Brown is the new green' and that sort of thing," Knopper said, referring to the campaign to let lawns die.
She urged the city to put together a fact sheet that can be easily distributed through message groups, informing residents that "trees are different than grass and the impact is much greater." Commissioner Deirdre Crommie also asked staff to do a better job informing the public about the problem and requested that Passmore post periodic updates about which trees are being taken care of.
Crommie, who lives in the Monroe Park neighborhood, said the trees in the eponymous south Palo Alto park are "in crisis."
"All the trees in the back of the park are in extreme distress, and it wouldn't surprise me if in four years they were dead," Crommie said.
Peter Jensen, the city's landscape architect, told the Weekly that the issue of supplying trees with enough water is also becoming a central consideration during municipal landscaping projects. Recently, the city removed turf from two planters at Kings Plaza, in front of City Hall, so that it can plant species that use less water. Though the city was able to save about 20 to 30 percent in water, it had to make sure that the new plants have a similar water needs to the amber and pear trees near planters, which get water through the same irrigation system.
It's important, Jensen said, to recognize the relationship between drought-wise watering of plants and making sure the trees still get the water they need.
"I think a lot of people are trying to do good and just turned off their irrigation," Jensen said. "But for some of the trees that aren't native, like magnolias -- those are the ones that are impacted the most."
Commissioner Jennifer Hetterley stressed the need to educate residents about "the importance of watering now" and not wait until El Nino, which may or may not bring heavy rains.
"Just because we're close to winter doesn't mean they can make it that far," Hetterly said. "It's really important that they get watered now."
"We definitely need help from property owners," he said. "Even with all the supplemental actions we're taking, we're only going to take care of 20 percent of the street trees, maximum. We would love for people to step up and say, 'I'm going to help this tree through the drought,' and then hopefully the rains will help it from there.'"