From Policy to Practice: Xeriscape Grant Program in Cathedral City, CA

Aidan Acker (MLA I)

Project Overview

How does a sustainable environmental practice transition from concept to reality? In Cathedral City CA, located in the Coachella Valley, local government has identified problematic residential water resource management, and developed an initiative that promotes responsible water use through transformation of the landscape. As with many of the homes in the Palm Springs area, residents have traditionally preferred green lawns, to the extent that the appearance of lawn against desert backdrop has become a trademark of Coachella Valley homes. Cathedral City’s initiative, called the Landscapes Grant Program, provides dollar matching for lawn removal, design consult, and installation of a xeriscape landscape in the old lawn’s place. Beyond the ecological effectiveness of replacing grass with xeriscape, the significance of this initiative lies in the fact that it provides an opportunity to research and understand how a sustainable best practice can, through policy, become available and affordable to a residential population. In better understanding how Cathedral City’s policy came into being, perhaps we can learn how to create better accessibility of sustainable environmental practices within a community.

Project Information

Residences in the Coachella Valley typically have adjacent lawns that require heavy irrigation.  The water costs required for the maintenance of these lawns is hugely expensive for cities in the area.  In Cathedral City, these costs are so high that it is more cost-effective to offer dollar for dollar matching of funds for residents to replace their lawns with xeriscape.  The beneficial attributes of xeriscaping are understood, but the development of public policy to assist residents in transforming their environmental practices is continually improving. Together, the political process by which such a policy becomes legitimate – and the results that come from such policies –create a picture of how the established policy functions.  The goal of this project is to gain an understanding of how such an initiative was successfullydeveloped; additionally, this project will visually record histories of the properties that have undergone the transition from lawn to xeriscape, providing a narrative of how the town’s public policy is shaping landscape management practices in the region.

Since the 1970s, xeriscaping has been widely accepted as an attractive and environmentally responsible alternative to landscapes that require supplemental irrigation.  In desert climates, use of succulents, dry grasses, and other drought-tolerant plants comprise the majority of xeriscapes.   However, many desert residences include lawns which are highly problematic in their water needs, as they require heavy supplemental irrigation to survive.  The Cathedral City/Palm Springs area has been associated with wealth and opulence since its emergence in the late 1930’s as a playground for wealthy movie stars searching for a retreat from Hollywood.  However, in the 1970’s retirees and families began settling permanently in the area, and as a result the Coachella Valley is now home to a large year-round population.  The contrasting image of lush lawns against the desert background has remained, and residents take pride in their ability to maintain these lawns in an inhospitable climate.  The maintenance of these lawns is a visual display of wasted water resources: the volume of water required to keep lawns healthy in extreme hot weather (frequently above 100 degrees in the summer) is higher than the desert groundwater recharge rate by a large margin, with resulting streams of irrigation water running down the gutters of paved cul-de-sacs in the afternoon.

In 2008, the Cathedral City government decided to offer an alternative to residents to encourage them to remove their lawns.  Generally, town governments achieve this by educating residents on the cost-saving benefits and environmental best practices.  This approach usually achieves a few intended goals, but typically does not bring about large scale change.  Comprehending this, Cathedral City Council passed an initiative that matches residents’ costs, dollar for dollar, in changing their lawn to xeriscape.  This money comes directly from the city’s conservation funds.  This initiative requires that all lawn be removed, replaced with drought tolerant landscaping, and requires replacement of sprinkler systems with a system that does not overflow water into the street.  Since 2008, over four hundred landscape xeriscape projects have been completed in Cathedral City residences.  Estimates from the Coachella Valley Water District indicate that a residential desert home with an adjacent lawn uses 701,624 gallons of water per year, costing $600.  In contrast, a residential home with an adjacent xeriscape uses 165,308 gallons of water per year, costing $141.

A major factor I encountered during this research was the absolute dominance of water-related infrastructure within the desert landscape.  The region itself receives 5 inches of water per year, but during rare periods of rain, intensely dry pervious surfaces cannot adequately provide drainage for the water which has quickly appeared.  To avoid flooding of streets and homes during these short, quick rainfalls, a massive retention basin runs through the towns, quickly collecting and carrying rainwater away from the streets, into the retention basin, and south to a large collection basin.  The retention basin itself runs under highway overpasses and through golf courses; smaller landscape infrastructure also can function as retention basins with parks and sports fields being built slightly below grade.  Street gutters themselves are designed without storm drains – the minimal amount of yearly stormwater does not necessitate underground drainage systems.  Instead, shallow gutters function simply by collecting fast-moving rainwater and carrying it to the larger retention basin.  For a region that receives so little rain, the amount of infrastructure that is present to deal with stormwater is vast– yet it is necessary in a region with such dry, compact soil.  However, street gutters are not effective in dealing with the small but consistent amount of lawn irrigation runoff that is present in every street in the Palm Springs area.  Lawn irrigation is performed near-constantly, both during the day and night, and the runoff simply moves slowly through the gutters, collecting and standing in large intersections until it evaporates.  The result of this amount of standing water is major damage to the street pavement, cracking and degrading the asphalt.  This infrastructural damage is the single largest factor in the popularity of municipal drought-tolerant landscape policy development.

The initial goal of the research was to better understand the legislative process by which a transformative environmental practice becomes policy; my actual findings revealed something much more complex in the social vehicle that allowed this practice to become policy.  I held an assumption that the Palm Springs area was comprised almost entirely of business and residences that cater to upscale lifestyles, and while this was true for a huge amount of the area, Cathedral City was much more diverse.  Comprised of mostly families and full-time workers, a very small portion of the residences in Cathedral City function as residences for retirees, or as second homes.  This demographic difference translates into a very different set of priorities that sets Cathedral City apart from the majority of Palm Springs towns – emphasis is placed more on the development of parks and schools as opposed to golf courses and spas, and taxes are far lower than in other nearby municipalities such as Rancho Mirage and the town of Palm Springs, where the majority of residences are vacation homes.  The differences between these towns account for probably the largest single factor that has determined the success of the Xeriscape Grant Program: lower taxes within the town have created a deficit in areas such as infrastructural maintenance, requiring that issues such as pavement damage from lawn irrigation runoff be mitigated.  The town’s single largest goal in creating this grant program was to reduce the amount of cracked pavement from water runoff, and residents were quick to adopt this program for several reasons.  The primary driver was the high cost of water from lawn irrigation, other influences were new homeowners purchasing foreclosed homes whose lawns needed to be replaced from neglect, as well as residents who preferred native, drought-tolerant vegetation and saw desert lawns as out of place in the landscape.

After visiting these towns, it is apparent that xeriscape development is much more present in Cathedral City than in any other town in the region.  During an interview of one resident, I discovered that many of her friends in nearby Palm Springs were unable to take advantage of the town’s xeriscape grant program. When asked why, she informed me that in Palm Springs, any residential xeriscape proposal must be either created by a professional landscape architect, or must conform to one of the town’s prescribed xeriscape designs.  There is no such requirement in Cathedral City – the landscape proposal must simply propose that a significant percentage of the landscape be comprised of drought-tolerant materials.  Why would there be such a discrepancy of approaches between the two towns?  During my interviews with the Department of Environmental Conservation, it became apparent that the primary goal of the xeriscape grant program was simply to replace as many lawns as possible with drought-tolerant landscapes, regardless of their appearance.  This willingness to incorporate all designs into the residential landscape provides insight into one approach to quickly and effectively transforming the landscape of this town.

Project Contact: Deanna Pressgrove, Environmental Conservation Manager, Cathedral City

Thanks to: James Finley, Mark Zuzinec

Resources:

Berman, David R. Local Government and the States: Autonomy, Politics, and Policy. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe,c2003.

Filippi, Olivier. The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate. London: Thames &Hudson, 2008.

Hess, Alan. Palm Springs Weekend: the Architecture and Design of a Mid-Century Oasis. San Francisco: ChronicleBooks, c2001.

Lush & Efficient: Landscape Gardening in the Coachella Valley (PDF)

Contact: aidanacker@post.harvard.edu