The lawns outside the Environmental Education Center, near Tilden Park's LIttle Farm, have been left to turn brown to save water.
The lawns outside the Environmental Education Center, near Tilden Park’s LIttle Farm, have been left to turn brown to save water. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Berkeley’s Tilden Park reports that it reduced water usage in May — the most recent bill available — by 40% compared to the same period in 2013.  The regional park in the Berkeley Hills has been watering its lawns less and less over the past several years, said Park Supervisor Sergio Huerta.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do, thanks to the creativity of staff,” said Huerta. Huerta was speaking for all of the park grounds except the golf course, which is on a separate water meter. The golf course reports that it has taken one-fifth of the greenways off irrigation — and it’s showing all along the edges.

Throughout the rest of Tilden Park, Huerta said, the lawns have been divided into four categories for watering: reduced, minimal, sporadic and zero. Lawns getting no water this year include the large picnic area called Padre on South Park Drive and the group campsites, Gillespie near the south end of the park, and Wildcat View near the north end.

Irrigation was shut down to just part of the Meadows Lawn in Tilden Park, just south of the old pony rides site. Photo: Mary Flaherty

One lawn still getting quite a bit of water is at the Brazil Building, because it is used for events and photos, Huerta said. Also, the Lake Anza lawns are being kept fairly green because they are open to everyone, not by reservation like the picnic areas.

The Brazil Building, a popular wedding venue, is still surrounded by lush grass. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Huerta said the park has switched to more efficient irrigation heads and has upgraded plumbing in buildings as old equipment breaks. He said the staff monitors watering based on weather and checks the meters “religiously.”

“We make sure at least two to three times per week that we’re on the path,” Huerta said.

Crunching the numbers

In 2014, Tilden Park used 29% less water than in 2013, according to Dania Stoneham, Park Unit Manager, Recreation Parks. Still, a 2,100-acre park takes a lot of water; Tilden used nearly 10 million gallons in 2014, Stoneham said.  (By comparison, UC Berkeley uses about 600 million gallons a year, of which only 8% goes to irrigation and outdoor uses.)

Asked how much water Tilden is supposed to cut, since required cuts vary across the state, Stoneham explained that because the 65-park district is served by 10 different water agencies, the whole district is aiming for a 25% reduction this year compared to 2013, as per Governor Brown’s April 1 mandate.

(The district already met that goal in 2014, with a reduction of 27% over all its parks, and it is conserving even more this year,Stoneham said.)

Stoneham said the district decided not to shut off irrigation completely, because it wants to provide for recreational needs.

“If everyone is being responsible and reducing their lawn size, then where are they going to go for that kind of recreation?” Stoneham said. “We do want to maintain some lawns for recreation.”

Planting natives in lieu of lawns

A strip of grass near the Little Farm was replaced with native plants to save water. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Tilden is not just watering grass less, it’s also looking for ways to reduce lawn space.  Next to the Little Farm parking lot, workers took 2,000 square feet of lawn off irrigation and replaced it with native plants, Huerta said. He hopes to convert more lawn to native plants, but said there are challenges.

“Seeding native grasses is really expensive,” he explained. “Gathering seed isn’t done on a commercial level.  There are only a few seed collectors and nurseries that can produce them,” he said. The small pot of money that East Bay Regional Parks had this year for native plants went to other properties in the district, he said.

Preserving the Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden (next to the Brazil Room) faces a special challenge in conserving water because its 75-year-old plant collection is considered a living museum. According to the park district website, the garden “contains the world’s most complete collection of California native plants, including rare and endangered species.”

“We were asked to conserve (water) where we can, but not let the collection die,” said Joe Dahl, park supervisor for the garden. “Some of our plants would be impossible to re-collect.”

Mostly, Dahl said, the 10-acre garden has cut back on watering lawns, which take up one-quarter to one-half an acre. “Ours are still green, but they are not lush,” he said. The garden is also trying out lawn alternatives, such as a native sedge, Carex pansa, which can be mowed. (This test lawn can be seen in the Sierran section of the park.)

Tilden golf course: Edges fading to brown

The Tilden Golf Course has shut off irrigation on 20% of the course, along the edges. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Across the road, the 18-hole Tilden golf course is fading to brown at its edges. Park superintendent Kevin Shipley wrote to Berkeleyside that the golf course “is complying with all the state mandates by watering only two days a week with no run-off.” He wrote that 20% of the course has been taken off irrigation.

Photo: Jonathan Hobbs/EBRPD

“Those areas are going to return to native landscape. We no longer maintain them, meaning they will be allowed to grow during the winter rains and left to go dormant each year going forward. These areas will continue to result in significant water savings going forward,” Shipley wrote.

How are people responding to a drier park? Park staff members said for the most part the public is supportive of the fading lawns, and, in fact, the park has had requests for its “Brown is the new green” signs.

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...