By Mike O’Sullivan
In the midst of the worst drought in California’s history, don’t forget to water your trees, which are essential to water conservation and community health and safety. That was the message of the Tree Care and Water-Saving Workshop held on the grounds of the PUC Nueva Esperanza Charter Academy in San Fernando Saturday, an event co-sponsored by the nonprofit group TreePeople, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the city of San Fernando and the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol.
The workshop was held as TreePeople volunteers celebrated the planting of more than 600 trees in the city of San Fernando through a project called Calles Verdes or Green Streets. The initiative aims to plant 2,000 trees in the city by 2027, said TreePeople CEO Cindy Montañez, who is also a council member in the City of San Fernando. The project is funded through partnerships with Cal Fire, the California State Coastal Conservancy and the waste processing company Republic Services.
“TreePeople will be out here literally on every single street knocking on doors, watering trees, mulching,” said Montañez. “San Fernando is becoming a model [in tree conservation].”
She anticipates that the effort will increase the local tree canopy by 33 percent.
Numerous studies have found that children in neighborhoods with many trees have lower rates of hospitalization for asthma, noting that trees remove pollutants from the air and that children are more likely to exercise outdoors in neighborhoods with heavy tree canopies.
Trees Capture Water
The drought monitoring website Drought Monitor has noted that much of California is now in “extreme drought” and parts of the Central Valley are in an “exceptional drought,” in the driest period on record in the state.
Trees are part of the solution, workshop speakers emphasized, protecting residents from the extreme heat that can lead to dehydration.
“Trees can capture water and store it in the aquifer,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). The underground aquifer is the porous rock and sediment that holds much of San Fernando’s water. The MWD, a public utility, provides water to 19 million people in six Southern California counties and has advised residents to employ water-saving methods, including replacing sprinklers with efficient drip irrigation systems.
Hagekhalil said residents shouldn’t neglect their trees, which provide “shade, shelter and food,” and with proper watering techniques, do not consume large amounts of water. “[Conserving] will let the water we have in storage stretch – to have it available for use for public health and safety,” he said.
Trees need only 15 gallons of water a week for their first three years. Representatives from TreePeople informed residents that even less water is needed after their trees mature. The annual cost to water a tree amounts to just $7, the organization has calculated.
TreePeople grew out of the volunteer efforts of tree-planting teenagers in the 1970s, and today more than 10,000 volunteers plant trees and conduct educational programs throughout Southern California, said Montañez. “There are trees in Los Angeles that are 400, 500 years old, and that’s what we want to continue,” she said, adding that trees help communities “address issues of air pollution, extreme heat and quality of life.”
Conserving Water, with Help from Trees
“We can conserve water without having to sacrifice our trees and public green spaces,” said Adán Ortega, San Fernando’s representative on the MWD board. Presenters at the workshop urged the use of mulch, porous matter such as decaying leaves and bark, to insulate the soil around plants and tree roots and prevent evaporation, and aid drainage.
Ortega said that despite the hot, dry weather, there is reason for optimism in Southern California. On the negative side, the region has seen an uptick in water use since 2020, but on a positive note, he said, “we’re using less water overall than we did in the 1970s, despite there being more than 5 million more people in this region.” Still, with some reservoirs reaching critically low levels, he said more needs to be done to limit non-essential water use, and safeguard trees.
One needed area of improvement: reducing the one million acre-feet of water lost in Southern California through inefficient irrigation of gardens, parks and highway medians each year. In April, the MWD called for a reduction in water consumption of 35 percent within its service area to stretch existing supplies to meet the region’s needs.
The last drought from 2012-2016 “saw thousands upon thousands of trees die, and it shouldn’t have happened,” said Ortega. Trees are part of the solution to this drought, residents were told.
“Every tree is actually a system,” said MWD’s Hagekhalil. A tree “takes water from the rain and puts it in the ground, so it’s actually a natural way of managing water,” he said. A heavy tree canopy cools the neighborhood and reduces evaporation, the experts said.
TreePeople is targeting San Fernando as what Montañez described as a “bright spot… where we are adding extra effort to organize community members and the local schools and cities to plant more trees, going from single-digit deficits to 50 percent plus tree canopy coverage.” San Fernando’s tree canopy recently stood at 18 percent, and is probably higher now, Montañez noted. Other communities targeted for improvement include southeast and South Los Angeles, Watts, and Compton.
Residents on Board
Residents at the workshop were on board with the project. Louise Seltzer has lived in San Fernando for most of her life and has persimmon, citrus, fig, plum, and apple trees in her yard. “A lot of us need information on how to care for our trees once we get them,” she said, noting that she attended Saturday’s workshop “so I can keep those trees going.”
Eight-year-old Isabella Gonzales, who is entering third grade at Global Green Generation Academy (G3), said “planting trees is fun, they clean the air and give food to the animals.” The young TreePeople volunteer has planted two trees in San Fernando and visits and waters them most Fridays.
Carmen Velarde, a resident of Sylmar, grows orange and avocado trees in her yard and attended the workshop for information on planting more trees.
TreePeople volunteer Kathy Chacon of Sylmar said trees are an investment that “mitigate the warming of the climate and provide shade for people. They cool the atmosphere. They provide shade for people. They provide a habitat for birds and squirrels, and they sequester the carbon,” she added.
Fifty participants at Saturday’s workshop received trees distributed through a raffle, and all left with gloves and buckets to get them started planting and caring for them.
For tips on tree care and conservation and water conservation, visit https://www.treepeople.org/trees/ and bewaterwise.com.
Mike O’Sullivan is a journalist in Southern California who covers environmental issues, among other topics.