March 27, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

Martha Davis: Using Sustainable Landscapes To Address Climate Change & Drought

In November, Los Angeles County passed Measure W, providing $3 billion per decade for regional green infrastructure projects to capture stormwater and improve water quality. As LA County leadership begins implementation, a new report by the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, Pacific Institute, CEO Water Mandate, and California Forward has highlighted the opportunities for the business community to engage. TPR interviewed Martha Davis, a co-author on the Sustainable Landscapes on Commercial and Industrial Properties in the Santa Ana River Watershed report, about the potential for landscaping changes to capture stormwater, reduce flooding, and improve water quality. Davis, a veteran water maven who has held leadership roles with the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and Mono Lake Committee, opines on green infrastructure’s co-benefits, such as carbon sequestration, urban cooling, and improved property values. Davis also comments on California water policy under the Newsom administration. A brief excerpt of the report follows the interview.

Martha Davis

"The business community has a breathtaking opportunity to do exactly what homeowners have been doing for the last 10 years: change out their landscapes to make them work better for their communities." - Martha Davis

Speak to the significance of the recent report you worked on that deals with improving water efficiency and stormwater capture on commercial and industrial lands in the Santa Ana watershed.

Martha Davis: This report is a collaboration among the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), the Pacific Institute, and California Forward. I want to shout out California Forward, because they’re the ones who came to us in hopes of figuring out ways for the business community to help address the drought. They asked: What is the opportunity for our community to play a role in improving management of water supply? The result is a Phase I report that identifies opportunities within the Santa Ana watershed for landscape transformation in the commercial and industrial sectors, as well as the implications of those changes for water management.

The results of the preliminary assessment are impressive. There is a huge amount of commercial and industrial land in California that is dedicated to outdoor landscaping. Within the Santa Ana watershed alone, there are 200,000 acres of landscaping that could be modified—with plants that are appropriate to our climate—to use water more efficiently and better capture stormwater. The business community has a breathtaking opportunity to do exactly what homeowners have been doing for the last 10 years: change out their landscapes to make them work better for their communities.

Highlight for our readers a success story of a business that has benefitted from water-saving sustainability investments.

When I worked at the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, we built the first LEED Platinum for a water agency headquarters in the West. As part of that project, we constructed a landscape that used native plants and was designed to capture stormwater. We monitored how that landscape performed, and it was breathtaking.

We were able to reduce the amount of pollutants left behind by water running off the street by about 60 percent. We were able to significantly reduce our onsite water usage. And we were able to provide spectacular habitat, for birds in particular; I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many birds surrounding an office as I’ve seen at IEUA. From a standpoint of water quality, water efficiency, habitat improvements, and quality of life for the community, it was one of the best investments the agency ever made.

Other businesses within the Santa Ana watershed and elsewhere in California have done similar things, and they’ve had equal, if not greater, success. Google, for example, did a fabulous project on the Peninsula in which they retrofitted miles and miles of median strips. They saw significant environmental benefits just from changing out lawn to something native with the capacity to absorb more rainwater.

Given the proven efficacy of commercial landscape transformation over the years, why hasn’t it become a common practice for business owners of property?

The bottom line is that change is hard. We have landscapes that are already in place; before spending money upfront to retrofit them, people naturally ask: “Why would we want to do this? How is it an investment in our community? How do we know it will work?” Those are all very understandable questions.

Change also comes slowly because people don’t immediately connect the need for the change with their own property. This report helps us to understand the potential impacts if everybody participated at a regional or watershed scale. We could capture more stormwater for our groundwater basins, which would improve our water supply and resilience, and we could improve water quality—maybe even keeping some waterways off the 303(d) “Impaired Waters” list maintained by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The report both affirms this opportunity, and also kicks off a conversation with businesses about what it would take to get them to walk through the door and make this change. There are two parts to this conversation. One part is very practical: What does this mean for the bottom line? How does investing in landscape transformation free up revenue that could go to other things?

The other part is the opportunity for businesses to be partners in helping our communities become equipped to deal with climate change. Over the subsequent phases of this project, we’ll get into demonstration projects and start to showcase: Is landscape transformation hard or easy? How much money did people save as a result of making these changes? How much water was kept in the ground as a result? What were the impacts on water quality? We’ll explore these stories in the context of California Forward’s argument that landscaping is an important opportunity for businesses to partner with our region.

Most of the recommendations in your report are geared toward encouraging voluntary collaborations and initiatives within watershed regions. What are the challenges of not having a regional governance system that can oversee these initiatives?

Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand that the choices that we make as individuals or entities actually make a difference to our communities. We tend to rely on regional governance or incentives to push those kinds of changes for the greater good. As we deal with the bigger issue of how each of us fits into our region, this project is a voluntary affirmation that the choices we make matter.


What I like about this project is that it sets the stage for parts of our community—in this case, businesses—to step forward and act on their concerns about reliable water supply and dealing with climate change, and to consider how they, as part of their community, are going to help that community adapt.

When a business changes its landscaping, it’s very visible; it’s there for the whole community to see. Some businesses actually put out signage explaining about why they did it and how it contributes to the wellbeing of the community. It’s a way for them to showcase that they care about their communities, while at the same time, frankly, contributing to their own bottom line.

Governor Newsom’s appointments since taking office have included new leadership at the State Water Resources Control Board. In your view, what can we expect from the new administration and the new board chair in terms of water management?

With this administration, we have a governor who clearly understands, and is deeply concerned about, how the forces of economics and climate change are impacting our people. For example, right out of the gate, he made a commitment to finding a solution for clean drinking water resources throughout the state of California. I find that inspiring and profoundly important in terms of shaping a future in which we don’t leave behind the poor or the disadvantaged—and I think we’re going to see this governor resonate around issues like housing and economic wellbeing in addition to water quality and water management.

At the State Water Resources Control Board, I was personally saddened to see the decision to request a change in leadership and have Felicia Marcus step down. Everybody recognizes the fabulous leadership that Felicia has brought to the board. However, Joaquin Esquivel has worked with closely with Felicia through the years, and I see him bringing the same level of leadership and the same values and commitments to the chairmanship.

Of course, I’m very excited about Laurel Firestone’s appointment to the Board. As co-director of the Community Water Center with Susana De Anda, she has spent the last decade fiercely fighting to address long-term drinking water quality issues in the Central Valley and throughout the state. She will be stepping forward to champion the policy leadership that the governor is bringing to this issue.

It’s a very strong board, and I look forward to the good work that they’re going to be doing, because they’ve got some very challenging issues in front of them. 

Lastly, in the state Legislature, Senators Hertzberg and Wiener and the National Resources Defense Council authored the Local Water Reliability Act, which would take steps to eliminate the practice of dumping wastewater into the ocean. Speak to the value of this legislations re the state’s water conservation agenda going forward.

The key question that the entire state is facing is: How do we do a better job of using the water that we have available to us? We cannot afford to waste it. Focusing on the high flows going out to the ocean—water that could be captured in our groundwater basins or in other ways—is one really important component of an overarching group of things that we need to do.

It starts with water efficiency. We should be using all our water supplies efficiently, including recycled water. Then, we need to focus on the transformation of our landscapes so that when it rains, we can hold as much water as possible back in the soil and the groundwater basins. This means undoing some of the hard surfacing on our roads and other places, where we’ve typically taken stormwater and shoved it to the side. In the long run, it’s going to be better for the ocean and the coastal communities, because water quality is impacted when we just slough all this oil and urban debris off the streets into the ocean.

The leadership in LA has been fabulous. With Measure W, there are going to be a lot of demonstration projects that will showcase what we can accomplish in terms of reducing the amount of water that we waste because we’ve built our cities in such a way that we throw our water into the ocean.

I look forward to the legislation addressing this issue holistically and in collaboration with the water community. We can help them set goals that are achievable but that also push us a little bit, and make sure that we’re not leaving important elements behind. I hope it will be an integrated package that fits in with all the other initiatives we have. All of them are critical to helping our communities deal with climate change and not waste any more water; we just can’t afford to.


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