El Niño & the Drought
How To Be Prepared For Lots of Rain — Or Not Enough by Deanna Murphy
The one-two punch of an El Niño winter followed by the anticipated continuation of the ongoing drought in summer 2016 can be a bit confusing for so many of us wondering what we should be planning more for: tons of rain, or no rain at all? The contradictory issue of preparing for these seemingly disparate seasonal weather patterns here in San Diego is a headache for homeowners, but surprisingly, the two really can be addressed with the same solutions.
Is El Niño Coming?
While our current annual rainfall totals are definitely above average, the warm weather we experienced deep into the fall might lead us to wonder if the doomsday warnings about El Niño are really much ado about nothing. But Jason Jarvis, president of Terra Bella Landscape Development, says not so fast. “What I know about it is that it’s definitely coming; it’s just a matter of when.”
What is the greatest risk to properties due to El Niño? “I think landslides and mudslides are going to be a big issue because the ground is so hard and so dry, and dry ground doesn’t soak up water very well, especially when it rains fast overnight. It just kind of repels it,” Jarvis predicts. Armstrong Garden Centers’ Chief Horticulturist, Gary Jones, echoes that concern, saying that the most vulnerable areas are hillsides and slopes. Bluntly put, Jarvis says, “If we have a lot of rain at once, we’re going to have a lot of mudslides.”
Another major issue Jarvis warns against is starting the season with rain gutters ill-prepared to handle large amounts of rain. “If you have full rain gutters, that water can go into your house and create mold,” he says.
Jones also cautions homeowners of the risk of overgrown trees or dead branches, which can fall and damage nearby structures.
A few precautions can help to prepare homes and yards for the upcoming rains without requiring a complete landscape overhaul. And since early preparation is the best defense, here are some ways to be ready:
1. Clean out your drains, including rain gutters, pipes, and in-ground drainage. Jarvis suggests opening up atrium grates of in-ground systems to make sure there’s nothing noticeably clogging the pipes. If there is, it can be power washed out or vacuumed with a shop vac.
2. Apply jute netting to hillsides and areas prone to excessive runoff. “It’s a straw net that goes on hillsides and is pinned down and helps prevent erosion. It’s important — we do a lot of it in our current jobs because we know [the rain] is coming,” advises Jarvis. Newly created slopes require a bit more attention, and Jones recommends covering them entirely in plastic to keep them from washing away completely.
Also, don’t rule out sandbags in the most high-risk areas. “Sandbags are a great way to hold back mud and water and deflect the water into drain spots,” Jarvis says.
3. Skip clearing up the dead stuff, at least for now. “The roots that remain in the ground will help hold soil during rainstorms,” says Jones. Instead, plant around the dead plants and resist pulling them up until the season is over.
4. Get generous with mulch. “Mulching your yard is key,” recommends Jarvis. “Forest fine or fine ground cover mulch will actually hold back and soak up some of that water.”
Is there a bright side?
“The silver lining is that we need the water,” says Jarvis. “The macro-picture is that water prices might come down by having more water in the reservoirs.” Plus, he hopes that increased rainfall could help water the orchards throughout our community that have been water-starved for so long, sparing them from being cleared or simply dying off.
What about the drought? “Even though El Niño is coming, it’s still going to be a hot, dry summer, so anything you can do to reduce water consumption helps with the overall cause — you’re doing your part in the water conservation effort,” says Jarvis. Fortunately, the steps to prepare for El Niño are beneficial when it comes to drought prep, too. From mulching beds, which holds water in times of rain and locks in moisture during drier times, to utilizing captured and reserved rainwater and conserving with a smarter irrigation management system, your yard — and your peace of mind — will be better off in both climate extremes with some smart planning and a few adjustments.
A New Landscape
How is our climate shaping landscaping design and planning? Here are a few of the biggest trends: No more water-hogging lawns. There has been a significant shift toward artificial turf. “That’s the big thing right now — getting rid of your grass, getting rid of your water bill, and going more drought-tolerant, which is our specialty,” says Jarvis. He calls his work “San Diego-scaping” — combining California natives and drought-tolerant species, including white roses, salvias, and lavenders. Other plants have root systems that are helpful in holding soils together during the El Niño season as well, including bearded irises, California lilac, and manzanitas, while surprisingly, some plants can actually encourage erosion and should be avoided on slopes and saved for flat areas, according to Jones. These include varietals like ice plants, which can become top-heavy with significant rainfall.
Rain Harvesting. Above-ground rain barrels are a great solution, but the landscape world is thinking even bigger. “We’re starting to go toward rain harvesting — building tanks in the ground that collect the rainwater that can be used later for irrigation. It’s the new frontier in our industry,” says Jarvis.
Smart Irrigation. Your yard: yet another thing you can manage from the palm of your hand. Cloud-based irrigation control systems are the next big thing, saving you the shame of forgetting to turn off your sprinklers when it rains, keeping it off for a number of days depending on how much rain fell, and even letting you know when the plants get thirsty again, all for about $500.