A letter just published in the prestigious international journal Nature questions the raft of ‘emergency measures’ introduced by the Jerry Brown California state governor during the state’s worst ever drought. The letter, written by ecologist Dr. Alexander Lees, a former University of California Irvine (UCI) student, now working at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil and Dr. Peter Bowler of UCI, highlights the limited scope of the governor’s water conservation plans in relation to its stated drought-tolerant landscaping goals. The authors call into question the figure of ‘50 million square feet of ornamental turf’ which, although it may sound substantial, is just 1.8 square miles of grass earmarked for ‘replacement’. A 2005 study in the journal Environmental Management estimated that there are over 4000 square miles of turf grass in California, so the state goverment’s current targets are very limited in their scope. The authors of the current study go on to argue that an expanded urban re-landscaping plan aimed to reduce water consumption could have substantial biodiversity co-benefits.
According to Dr. Lees, a Brit who works on conservation issues across the world, but most recently focused on the Amazon “California is not facing these challenges alone, many other urban areas are now facing similar water shortages, such as in the conurbations of South-east Brazil and in Australia. California has a chance now to lead the way in saving water and securing local a future for biodiversity and local ecosystem services”. Dr. Bowler, a senior lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Faculty Director of the UC Natural Reserve System’s San Joaquin Marsh Reserve, affirmed that “Areas of lawns due for replacement should ideally be planted with native perennial plant species, as diverse as an assemblage as possible to maximize local biodiversity.”
Lees and Bowler stress that restoration should be as strategic as possible, removing turf grass that is unused for recreational ends and making the best of opportunities to connect isolated patches of threatened habitats such as coastal sage scrub. Dr. Lees further emphasized that “Creating more wildlife-friendly urban green-spaces and corridors will both help to save threatened species like the California Gnatcatcher from local extinction and help local people re-connect with wildlife at a time that people are increasingly suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder.”