Some landscapers fear losing work in drought
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 9:51 a.m.
As a landscaper, Kate Anchordoguy acknowledges the drought is giving her “a real moral dilemma.”
On the one hand, the owner of Kate Anchordoguy Landscaping in Santa Rosa wants to provide work for her three employees and herself. On the other hand, she believes that 2014 may become the year for customers to leave one key element out of their landscaping projects: The plants.
“I think it's better than wasting water this year on establishing new plantings,” she said.
Like agriculture, the landscaping industry has suffered in past droughts when residents and businesses cut back on installing new plants and on maintaining lawns and gardens.
Landscape contractors in Sonoma County differ markedly on the outlook for 2014, a year where state and local officials already are calling for a 20 percent cut in water consumption.
“If we don't get rain, it's really going to affect our business,” said Jeff Pottorff, owner of North Bay Landscape Management in Petaluma.
Pottorff already has met with city officials in the East Bay and heard them say that without more rain they will dramatically cut back on the water they apply to the public landscapes that his 70-worker company maintains.
However, other landscapers believe their businesses will adapt and stay busy even through another dry year. They can do so by installing drought-tolerant plants and by working to help keep existing landscapes alive.
“I don't think I'll lose any business,” said Linda Gottuso-Guay, who with her husband James owns Manzanita Landscape Construction in Santa Rosa. “I think people will call me to help.”
Part of that help, landscapers said, may be to consider which plants to water and which to let die.
On the North Coast, the last 13 months have been the driest in 83 years of record keeping.
The next two months are considered the best hope for significant rainfall before summer. Santa Rosa on average receives nearly 90 percent of its rain between October and March.
In response, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a statewide drought emergency.
Meanwhile, Sonoma County and its cities are preparing to cut water use by 20 percent this year. For communities receiving water from the Russian River, the voluntary savings would amount to roughly 3 billion gallons.
The state Department of Water Resources has estimated the landscape and gardening industry lost $460 million in gross revenues and 5,600 full-time jobs in the drought year of 1991, or roughly a 7 percent cut in the $7 billion industry.
Harold Berkemeier, owner of Harold's Landscape & Maintenance in Cotati, said he took a bigger hit in the 1976-77 drought, until now considered the most consequential dry spell for North Bay homes and businesses. Berkemeier estimated his business dropped about 25 percent as property owners came under strict water rationing and stopped watering their lawns.
“They let their landscape maintenance people go,” he recalled.
Berkemeier, a former Cotati mayor and council member, said without winter rains both landscapers and residents could find themselves in a tough spot again this year. But the region needs to conserve all the water it can, and cities “should be the first to show that they're going to cut way back” on parks and other landscapes.
Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association, said many of her 2,000 members already are getting calls from customers seeking advice on how to keep their plants alive.
“The public is concerned about this,” Giarde said. “They have questions. They recognize the need for expert assistance.”
Already some are changing plans. Jerry Rovetti, owner of Rovetti's Landscaping in Santa Rosa, said the drought recently prompted owners to have him install drought-tolerant plants rather than lawn in a home going on the market in Petaluma.
For 2014, Rovetti said, “We may be pulling out a lot of lawn.” Even so, he doesn't expect a significant drop in business because property owners still will install new plantings.
Since 1977, the state has recorded droughts in 1987-1992, 2000-2002 and 2007-2009. The dry spells already have pushed changes in landscaping, as in virtually all areas of residential and commercial water use.
For example, the city of Santa Rosa reports that since 2007, it has paid homeowners and business to remove 2 million square feet of turf. The city pays up to $250 to take out home lawns and up to $2,500 for turf removal at commercial properties, plus other funds for upgrading irrigation equipment.
Darryl Orr, an owner of Pacific Landscapes in Sebastopol, said a decade ago roughly 60 percent of his company's work involved lawns. Today that figure is closer to 35 percent.
Orr, whose business employs 65 workers, remains optimistic that landscapers can weather the water shortage, especially if the region gets some rain in the next few months.
“We can deal with a 25 percent water cutback,” he said.
Landscapers said property owners will hire them to figure out ways to use less water and still keep plants alive.
Frank Patane, general manager of Golden Gate Landscape Management in Santa Rosa, said he takes care of 30 acres of local athletic fields and already is suggesting that his workers save water this year by leaving the grass a little higher when they cut it.
For installers, a key factor will be whether property owners decide to hold off new planting this year.
In that regard, Santa Rosa officials are discussing whether the city's lawn removal program should encourage participants to remove turf now but to delay installing new plants and shrubs until after the rains return.
In such a scenario, home and business owners still could tear out the lawn and install drip irrigation and other improvements, “but possibly hold off on the planting,” said Kimberly Zunino, a water resources sustainability manager for the city.
Peter Estournes, director of operations at Gardenworks in Healdsburg, said without rain, other cities also may consider discouraging or prohibiting new plantings.
Estournes, a former president of the state landscapers association, said he still hopes for a “fabulous February” for rainfall. But he expects that a key job of landscapers this year will be to prompt their clients to ask: “What is my landscape worth to me? What can I do without? What's important to me?”
Pierre Marizco, president of Marizco Landscape Management in Santa Rosa, said he foresees a dilemma: Property owners will have less water this year while plants likely will get thirsty earlier because of the lack of precipitation. That could mean stretching the reduced amount of irrigation water over a much longer period.
“I believe some difficult choices are going to be made,” Marizco said. “Maintaining all your plants in a healthy vigorous state may not be possible this year.”
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