Even during the rare rainy spell, California's prolonged drought remains high on the priority list of Palo Alto officials, who are preparing to adopt tonight new rules governing what type of flora local residents and businesses can plant on their landscapes.
The emergency ordinance would add new efficiency requirements for landscaping projects, including adding a "planting restrictions" requirement that would ban local property owners from using turf or high water-using plants in their landscapes. It would also require at least 80 percent of all plants selected in the landscape to be native plants, low water-using plants or no water-using plants.
Those wishing to avoid the planting restrictions can opt to perform a "water budget calculation," a detailed assessment demonstrating the project's water usage on an annual basis. According to staff, this type of assessment would be typically prepared by a landscape architect.
The new ordinance, which would kick in on Feb. 1, aims to bring the city into compliance with Gov. Jerry Brown's orders to conserve more water in response to the state's ongoing four-year drought. Those cities that don't adopt their own restrictions would, by default, be subject to the 2015 landscaping ordinance adopted by the state. To comply, the city has been working with other agencies in the Bay Area Supply and Conservation Ordinance (a coalition of water agencies that draw its water from the Hetch Hetchy system) to craft a regional ordinance for landscaping.
Palo Alto's proposed law draws heavily from both the state and the regional ordinances but goes further. Unlike the others, it does not have a size requirement for landscaping projects that would have to comply. It simply applies to every project.
The new ordinance would also include evapotranspiration (the total water that undergoes transportation and evaporation) thresholds aimed to reduce the landscape area that could be planted with thirsty species.
For residential projects, the maximum applied water allowance will be lowered from 70 percent of the reference evapotranspiration to 55 percent; for non-residential projects it would be 45 percent, according to a report from the city's Development Services Department.
The new ordinance will also create a new permitting system for landscaping projects, which would be processed separately from building permits. Under the new system, the issuance building permit would trigger the new landscaping-permit requirement. It would allow the property owner to receive a final inspection for a building permit before proceeding to complete the landscaping. One function of such a system, according to staff, is "to provide for a quality customer service experience for project applicants."
Lastly, the new ordinance would create new provisions for use of greywater, untreated waste water that is discharged through bathtubs, washing machines and bathroom wash basins. This option, according to staff, "reduces demands on potable water supplies and decreases the total volume of potable water usage that is factored into the overall site water budget."
According to the report, the ordinance "would continue the City's leadership position in promoting water efficient landscape design."
If the council votes to approve it tonight, it would be implemented on an expedited basis as an "emergency ordinance" and take effect on Feb. 1.