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Accelerating Sustainable Landscape Adoption in the Bay Area

Project URL link
Sponsoring Agency StopWaste
Subregions ('North Bay', 'East Bay', 'South Bay', 'West Bay')
Counties Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma
Watershed Tributary
Public or private land? ()
Location (lat/lon) 37.80, -122.27
Start Date 07/01/2015
End Date 09/30/2019
Location Description All counties within the San Francisco Bay Area IRMWP

Complementing and building on the Bay Area water agencies’ conservation programs, the Accelerating Sustainable Landscape Adoption project will harness the power of city and county governments to accelerate the shift to a more sustainable approach to landscape design, construction and maintenance. The project will establish a regional public agency council and provide technical assistance to support local governments in adopting and implementing consistent, holistic landscape standards that not only reduce outdoor water use, but that also increase the region’s resilience to drought and climate change, and provide comprehensive stormwater, habitat and water quality benefits. Leveraging these public sector activities, this project will provide incentives to transform high profile commercial properties to sustainable landscapes, and will expand and enhance current landscape professional training and homeowner outreach activities. 

Drinking Water Supply
Water Quality Improvement
Water Reuse/Recycling
Stormwater Improvements
Groundwater Benefits
Habitat Protection and Restoration
Flood Protection
This is a new project proposal that builds on three top-scoring Bay-Friendly projects already in the Bay Area IRWM Plan. This project leverages the power of Bay Area city and county governments to accelerate the transformation from conventional to sustainable landscaping practices. As with existing water-efficient landscape efforts undertaken by the region’s water agencies, this project aims to significantly decrease the use of the Bay Area’s drinking water supply for landscape irrigation. However, this project’s holistic approach to landscape design and management — based on the comprehensive Bay-Friendly Landscape standard — will provide a broader and more enduring range of benefits than current programs focused solely on decreasing water use. These additional benefits include: - Improving water quality by reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, reducing runoff, and improving the health of soil and its ability to break down and filter contaminants. - Improving stormwater management with a comprehensive set of landscape best practices that reduce runoff and keep stormwater onsite. Bay-Friendly Landscape’s rigorous standards are designated as Best Management Practices in the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Municipal Regional Stormwater NPDES Permit since 2009. - Providing groundwater benefits by improving infiltration of stormwater into the soil, and reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and other contaminants. - Increasing infiltration by encouraging strategies such as increased organic matter content in soil, permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and other low impact development (LID) features. - Protecting habitat by encouraging the use of a diverse palette of native plant species, avoiding the introduction of invasive horticultural species, and reducing the contamination of habitat with pesticides and other pollutants. - Providing flood protection by emphasizing LID strategies to reduce runoff and increase infiltration of stormwater.

Part 2 - Detail

General Project Concept

As California’s prolonged drought continues and the impacts of climate change on our water resources become more apparent, the Bay Area’s water agencies are making extraordinary efforts to reduce water demand. Clearly, however, they cannot win this battle on their own. To complement and build on these conservation programs, the Accelerating Sustainable Landscape Adoption project will harness the power of Bay Area city and county governments to create fundamental change in how public and private sector landscapes are designed, built and managed.

This project will be led by StopWaste, a public agency responsible for reducing waste in Alameda County. Over the past 10 years, StopWaste has worked with its 14 member cities and the county to adopt Bay-Friendly landscape policies that make urban landscapes more resilient to drought and climate change and better able to capture, hold and filter stormwater. As part of this work, StopWaste created the Bay-Friendly Landscape Guidelines, the Bay-Friendly Landscape Rating System and other resources now managed by the regional nonprofit Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening Coalition. (Attachment 3 provides more information about these and other Bay-Friendly resources, and highlights results from more than 10 years of implementing Bay-Friendly policies and practices in Alameda County.)

This project will leverage these tools and strategies to accelerate a regional transformation from water-greedy, lawn-centric landscapes to California-friendly landscapes that naturally thrive in a summer-dry, drought-prone climate.

What Will Be Implemented

The project’s main focus is to leverage change where local governments have the greatest influence on landscape practices: the public properties they own and maintain and the new landscape projects they issue permits for. Individually, few local governments have the resources or expertise to envision and enact landscape policies that provide a comprehensive approach to drought and climate resilience. To address this need, this project will convene a public agency landscape council that will serve as a forum for local governments to coordinate efforts, pool resources and replicate successes. This project will also provide technical assistance to local governments to help them adopt, implement and enforce regionally consistent policies that meet the comprehensive Bay-Friendly standard. 

These activities will send a clear signal to the landscape industry that investments in staff training and new business practices will be rewarded with greater demand for Bay-Friendly landscape services. To complement the public sector activities, this project will expand the Bay-Friendly Qualified Professional training program to include courses in marketing sustainable landscape services, as well as specialized training in the design, construction and management of LID stormwater systems. 

This project will also provide incentives to high profile commercial properties in the region to convert their conventional landscapes to sustainable, Bay-Friendly landscapes. As local governments and businesses implement sustainable landscape practices on highly visible public properties such as parks, civic centers, street medians and office parks, homeowners take notice and are more likely to make similar changes to their properties. This project will amplify this ripple effect by providing how-to education to homeowners via workshops, videos and other outreach.

How the Project Will Function 

StopWaste will administer the DWR grant, and partner with the Bay-Friendly Coalition to convene the regional public agency council and establish mechanisms for delivering technical assistance and policy support to local governments throughout the Bay Area IRWM region. In preliminary discussions with StopWaste, a number of cities, counties and other local government entities have expressed strong interest in this project concept. The project’s training and outreach activities will be managed by the Bay-Friendly Coalition, which currently offers landscape professional training and homeowner education funded in part by Prop. 84. 

Regional Coordination 

The paradigm for this project — that local governments can work together to accelerate a regional shift to more sustainable and water-efficient landscape practices — has precedent in the Bay Area’s building sector. In the early 2000s, StopWaste helped launch a nonprofit organization, Build It Green (BIG). One of BIG’s core activities was to convene a Green Building Public Agency Council to provide policy and technical support to local governments. At the outset of this process, only one city in the Bay Area had a green building policy. By 2010, most cities and counties had green building requirements, local governments were leading by example by making civic buildings greener and more energy efficient, and the region’s public agencies and building professionals were well ahead of the curve when CALGreen, the statewide mandatory green building code, went into effect in 2011.

Gov. Brown’s April 1, 2015 Executive Order directs the Department of Water Resources to update the state Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO) to increase water efficiency and promote compliance. Leveraging the region’s proven model for shifting the building sector toward greater sustainability, this project will position Bay Area cities and counties to be leaders in the WELO update process and to help steer the region’s residential and commercial property owners to more sustainable and water-efficient practices. 

DAC Benefits

As a result of this project, public parks, street medians and other public properties will be renovated and managed according to Bay-Friendly principles that lead to safer, healthier, more beautiful neighborhoods, providing a direct benefit to Disadvantaged Communities.

California’s historic drought and the unprecedented statewide mandatory water reductions recently announced are focusing greater attention on the potential impacts of climate change on the Bay Area’s water resources. These include more variable weather and precipitation patterns, including longer and more severe droughts and more intense downpours that may exacerbate flood risks. In addition, experts project loss of at least 25% of the Sierra snowpack by 2050, meaning less water will be available to use. (Source: Department of Water Resources,  The Accelerating Sustainable Landscape Adoption project will address these challenges by accelerating the transition from conventional to Bay-Friendly landscape design, construction and maintenance practices throughout the BAIRWM region. The Bay-Friendly approach to landscaping goes beyond drought tolerance. It emphasizes ecologically and economically sound practices that make urban landscapes more adaptive and resilient in the face of a rapidly changing climate.  Water supply need: This project will increase local governments’ adoption of policies based on comprehensive sustainable landscape practices, such as the Bay-Friendly Landscape standard. The Bay-Friendly approach has been shown to reduce irrigation water use by 50% to 90% compared to conventional landscaping. It does this holistically by addressing the total landscape, starting with the soil which is often overlooked by water efficiency programs but is critical to long-term water conservation and many other benefits. The Bay-Friendly approach ensures that compost and mulch are used to increase the soil’s organic matter content to at least 3.5% and preferably 5%. Organic matter acts like a sponge, holding water in the root zone longer, decreasing loss to evaporation, increasing infiltration, improving plant health and breaking down pollutants. The holistic Bay-Friendly approach also includes installing low water using plants, avoiding overplanting, and designing and installing efficient irrigation systems.  Water quality need: The Bay-Friendly standards promoted by this project improve water quality in the Bay Area region by reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, reducing runoff, and improving the health of soil and its ability to break down and filter contaminants.  Flood control need: This project will improve regional stormwater management by promoting a comprehensive set of best practices that reduce runoff and keep stormwater onsite. (Bay-Friendly Landscape’s rigorous standards are designated as Best Management Practices in the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Municipal Regional Stormwater NPDES Permit, from 2009 to the present.) Infiltration is improved through strategies such as increased organic matter content in soil, permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and other LID features.  Resource stewardship need: In addition to conserving water and protecting water quality, the Bay-Friendly approach protects habitat by encouraging the use of a diverse palette of native plant species and avoiding the introduction of invasive horticultural species. It provides broad benefits related to land use, including decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 53 MTCO2E per acre, creating and protecting habitat, and providing public health benefits.

As a result of the drought and ongoing outreach by the region’s water conservation programs, more people now understand the importance of using less water on their lawns and gardens. However, programs and policies with an overly narrow focus on water conservation may have unintended negative consequences. Without the regional coordination and holistic approach promoted by this proposal, most public and private landscape construction and renovation projects will not implement proven strategies that provide holistic benefits for the region’s water resources, environment and economy. Specifically, if this proposal is not implemented, the following critical impacts are likely to occur: 

  • Inconsistent policies and laws. While the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO) provides a code baseline, it has not gone far enough in its conservation or compliance requirements. Also, it is strictly focused on water efficiency rather than addressing the impacts of landscapes on water resources in a more holistic way. Gov. Brown’s April 1, 2015 Executive Order directs the Department of Water Resources to update WELO. However, without a regional forum for local governments to strengthen their policy and technical expertise and to agree on proven Best Management Practices, local adaptation and adoption of WELO updates may result in an patchwork of inconsistent policies and enforcement protocols. 
  • Limited leadership. The region will miss out on the opportunity to have local governments lead by example and show property owners how to create beautiful landscapes that are drought and climate resilient.
  • Missed opportunities for lasting improvement. The extended drought provides a perfect time to promote the adoption of a California landscape aesthetic vs. the English garden aesthetic of conventional landscapes. Property owners may replace lawns with landscapes that produce short-term reductions in water use but that may struggle to thrive due to poor soils and be less resilient with extended warmer temperatures and less summer irrigation. See the Sheet Mulch It! brochure (Attachment 1) for a detailed comparison of the benefits of conventional lawn removal vs. a sustainable approach to lawn conversion. 
  • Short-sighted actions. Property owners may think that paving over their lawns or letting them lawns die is a reasonable response to the drought, not realizing the negative impacts this will have on the urban heat island effect, stormwater runoff, wildlife habitat and other critical regional issues. To combat climate change, we need a healthy urban forest and landscapes that can store carbon, cool and clean the air, and survive with less irrigation.
  • Wasted public resources. Local governments will lack a mechanism for collaborating and sharing their successes and challenges with policies and practices related to sustainable landscaping. 
  • Uninformed choices and unintended consequences. More invasive species are likely to be planted because landscape professionals and property owners will focus on drought tolerant plants without taking into account other important considerations. Invasive species crowd out native species, choke waterways, degrade habitats, and burden public agencies with more than $80 million annually in management and removal costs. 
  • Excessive landfill waste. Gov. Brown’s Executive Order calls for the replacement of 50 million square feet of lawn with drought tolerant landscapes. The conventional method of lawn replacement is to rip out the lawn. Since sod is not accepted at compost facilities, this could result in up to 100,000 tons of sod going to landfill. Moreover, the conventional lawn replacement method is a missed opportunity to provide the soil with valuable, water-conserving organic matter. The Bay-Friendly method of lawn conversion uses sheet mulch, a zero waste, environmentally superior alternative to conventional lawn removal. (See Attachment 1 for a comparison of conventional and sheet mulch lawn conversion methods.)
  • Missing fundamental principles. Landscape professionals and property owners will be narrowly focused on simply replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants, without understanding the important role that healthy soils rich in organic matter play in conserving water and protecting water quality and plant health.
  • Diminished statewide influence. Bay Area governments will be in a more reactive and disorganized state as the process unfolds for updating the State Model Water Efficiency Landscape Ordinance, as required by Gov. Brown’s Executive Order B-29-15. 

Benefits Summary 

Over 10 years, this project will result in: 

  • Water Supply: More than 1.8 billion gallons (5,637 acre-feet) saved by converting conventional landscapes to Bay-Friendly landscapes
  • Water Quality and Flood and Stormwater Management: At least 300 acres of conventional landscapes on public properties converted to Bay-Friendly landscapes that model best practices for integrating water conservation with water quality protection and LID stormwater and flood management strategies.
  • Resource Stewardship: More than 3,040 MTCO2E avoided. More than 300 acres of landscapes converted to sustainable landscaping featuring primarily California native and climate-adapted horticultural species. Invasive plant species removed and/or not planted on 300+ acres of conventional landscape. 
Preliminary cost effectiveness:

The preliminary cost effectiveness is estimated to be $237/acre-foot based on total project cost of $1,336,320 and water savings of 5,637 acre-feet. This is a very conservative preliminary estimate based only on water savings from Element 1 (Policy & Civic Landscapes) and Element 2 (Sustainable Landscape Showcase). It does not factor in the project’s extensive multi-benefits such as greenhouse gas emission reductions, habitat protection, increased infiltration, water quality improvements, and stormwater management improvements. It also does not factor in water savings from Element 3 (Training & Outreach), and it is based on a very conservative estimate of the number of jurisdictions likely to adopt sustainable landscape policies as a result of this project. Given the urgency that the drought adds to Bay Area water issues, a much higher number of jurisdictions are likely to engage with this project

Benefits Details

Element 1: Policy and Civic Landscapes — Public Agency Council and Technical Assistance 

  • Activities: This element will assist Bay Area cities and counties with customizing model policy tools (such as permitting checklists, model specifications, water savings and GHG calculators), and ordinance adoption. This element includes hosting public agency forums to support adoption of regionally consistent landscaping policies, including a daylong event with experts on green ordinance adoption to help cities envision and implement climate-adaptive landscaping standards.
  • Outputs: At least 30 cities receive technical assistance. Cities representing 40% of the Bay Area’s population participate in the project’s public agency council and forums. Fifteen cities adopt sustainable landscape policies.
  • Results: Thirty acres per year of public property is converted from conventional to sustainable landscaping, resulting in 5,504 acre-feet of water saved and 2,970 MTCO2E avoided over 10 years and 200,000 tons of landscape construction and demolition waste diverted from landfills. Attachment 2, City of Pleasanton Landscape Success Story, is an example of recent civic landscape conversion project in Alameda County.

Element 2: Sustainable Landscape Showcase

  • Activities: This element will provide incentives and technical assistance to owners of eight high profile commercial properties to support their conversion from conventional to Bay-Friendly landscapes. The project’s public relations activities will generate earned media coverage to draw attention to the landscape improvements, thereby encouraging other residential and commercial property owners to make similar changes.
  • Outputs: Eight sites converted for a total of at least four acres.
  • Results: More than 43 million gallons of water saved and 72 MTCO2E avoided over 10 years and 4,000 tons of landscape construction and demolition waste diverted from landfills.

Element 3: Training & Outreach — Professional Training, HOA & Community Outreach, Web-based Toolkit

  • Activities: Continuing education will be provided to Bay-Friendly Qualified Professionals to improve their ability to market Bay-Friendly landscape services, lawn conversion programs and water agency rebates. Specialized daylong trainings will also be provided to landscape professionals on how to design, build and maintain LID stormwater systems. Bay-Friendly workshops will be conducted for homeowner associations (HOAs) and other residential high water users. The Bay-Friendly Coalition’s website will be enhanced with consumer-friendly outreach materials including regionally customized packages of how-to video shorts and regionally customized, downloadable Plant Palettes & Plans Packages. 
  • Outputs & Results: Six hundred Bay Area landscape professionals will attend continuing education and LID stormwater training. Eight workshops will be held at large HOAs or partner organizations such as nurseries, water agencies or large landscape suppliers. The online videos and outreach material packages will receive at least 75,000 hits.
Increases Water Supply Reliability
Advances/ Expands Conjunctive Management of Multiple Water Supply Sources
Increases Water Use and/or Reuse Efficiency
Provides Additional Water Supply
Promotes Water Quality Protection
Reduces Water Demand
Advances/Expands Water Recycling
Promotes Urban Runoff Reuse
Addresses Sea Level Rise
Addresses other Anticipated Climate Change Impact (e.g. through water management system modifications)
Improves Flood Control (e.g. through wetlands restoration, management, protection)
Promotes Habitat Protection
Establishes Migration Corridors
Re-establishes River-Floodplain Hydrologic Continuity
Re-introduces Anadromous Fish Populations to Upper Watersheds
Enhances and Protects Upper Watershed Forests and Meadow Systems
Other (Please Describe)
Increases Water Use Efficiency or Promotes Energy-Efficient Water Demand Reduction
Improves Water System Energy Efficiency
Advances/Expands Water Recycling
Promotes Urban Runoff Reuse
Promotes Use of Renewable Energy Sources
Contributes to Carbon Sequestration (e.g. through vegetation growth)
Other (Please Describe)
(low) - (high)
Drought Preparedness
Use and Reuse Water More Efficiently
Climate Change Response Actions (Adaptation to Climate Change, Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Reduce Energy Consumption)
Expand Environmental Stewardship
Practice Integrated Flood Management
Protect Surface and Groundwater Quality
Improve Tribal Water and Natural Resources
Ensure Equitable Distribution of Benefits
Reduce Reliance on the Bay-Delta
Reduce Water Demand
Improved Operational Efficiency and Transfers
Increase Water Supply
Improve Water Quality
Improve Flood Management
Practice Resources Stewardship
Other Strategies (Please Describe)
Groundwater Management Plan
Urban Water Management Plan
Water Meter Requirements
Groundwater Monitoring Requirements
AB 1420 Compliance
BMP Compliance
CEQA Compliance
Water supply reliability, water conservation and water use efficiency
Stormwater capture, storage, clean-up, treatment, and management
Removal of invasive non-native species, the creation and enhancement of wetlands, and the acquisition, protection, and restoration of open space and watershed lands
Non-point source pollution reduction, management and monitoring
Groundwater recharge and management projects
Contaminant and salt removal through reclamation, desalting, and other treatment technologies and conveyance of reclaimed water for distribution to users
Water banking, exchange, reclamation and improvement of water quality
Planning and implementation of multipurpose flood management programs
Watershed protection and management
Drinking water treatment and distribution
Ecosystem and fisheries restoration and protection
Reduced Reliance on the Bay-Delta
Projects that directly address a critical water quality or supply issue in a DAC
Urban water suppliers implementing certain BMPs as on page 17 of Guidelines
Be designed to manage stormwater runoff to reduce flood damage (PRC §5096.827)
Be consistent with the applicable Regional Water Quality Control Plans (Basin Plans) (PRC §5096.827)
Not be a part of the State Plan of Flood Control (SPFC) (PRC §5096.827)

Project team

Part 3 - Benefits