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Ending Piedmont's Water Habit

A group of gardeners have banded together to help bring native and drought-tolerant plants to the water-guzzling town.

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The leafy East Bay enclave of Piedmont is known for its multimillion-dollar mansions with expansive front lawns and thirsty, English-style gardens. But few people may realize the full extent of the city's water habit. Single-family households in the small town use more than twice as much water per day than do Berkeley residents, and nearly twice as much as do residents of Oakland, according to East Bay MUD. However, following the lead of water-wise neighbors in those cities — where landscaping with native, drought-tolerant, and edible plants is fully in vogue — a grassroots coalition of eco-minded Piedmont residents is beginning to push for a paradigm shift.

"There's a broader social movement that's out there, across the country, even in a place like Piedmont ... taking steps toward a more sustainable future," said Margaret Ovendon, one of five co-chairs of the new group. Called Piedmont CONNECT, the organization — which formed in April and has swelled to 165 members — promotes environmental sustainability throughout Piedmont.

But according to data provided by East Bay Municipal Utility District, the effort to wean Piedmont residents off their heavy water use promises to be a long struggle. Single-family homes in the town used an average of 356 gallons of water per day from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, Berkeley and Oakland averaged just 171 and 191 gallons per day, respectively.

To find an East Bay community that uses as much water as Piedmont, you have to travel across the hills to the much warmer and drier Contra Costa County suburb of San Ramon. There, most single-family homes sit on large lots with midcentury landscaping and front and back lawns. Yet, at 394 gallons per day, they use only slightly more water than Piedmont residents. In other words, Piedmonters have plenty of room for improvement.

But there are indications that members of the community are open to change. One of Piedmont CONNECT's first ventures was organizing a mid-June tour of eco-friendly gardens maintained by the homeowners themselves. It proved so popular that tour organizer Anne Weinberger had to cap registration at seventy and turned away more than thirty people. A fall follow-up is already in the works.

"It was so exciting to go behind the clipped hedges and see that there are all these people with bee hives and chicken coops and vegetable gardens," said Weinberger, a landscape designer and environmental design student at Oakland's Merritt College — where Piedmont's water-loving yards are frequently cited as examples of what to avoid. "The gardens are great, soulful endeavors that don't have anything to do with the image of this town. It was like jumping from 1970s Piedmont to Berkeley and Oakland of today — finally."

The five homes on the tour were located along a one-mile circuit in lower Piedmont, an area that, given its smaller lots and proximity to Oakland, is most likely to be on the vanguard of landscape reform in Piedmont. Their gardens featured olives for curing, chickens for eggs, and beehives for honey. One homeowner blanketed her front yard in 95 percent native plants, which remain something of a novelty in Piedmont: "I think that those natives really intrigue people," said Weinberger, "and when she said she only waters once a month, there was an audible gasp in the crowd."

Another tour highlight was the home of Piedmont CONNECT co-chair Terry Smith. Although you can hardly tell from the front, it features one of Piedmont's most productive gardens. Twenty years ago, she tore up the front lawn and converted the yard to a drought-tolerant design, also including berry bushes and a kiwi vine. More recently, she added eight fruit trees and 150 square feet of raised beds to the backyard. "Lawn is a huge resource waste," she said. "It just seems a waste to put it in ornamental plants when you can put in plants that are equally lovely and can provide food."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kay Kewley and fiancé Wayne Lyons installed their first edible garden last June. They replaced their traditional front yard with twelve-inch raised beds situated among fruit trees and other vegetables planted directly into the earth. Even the construction was green — the fir for the beds and bricks for new walkways were salvaged from a foundation replacement project on another property. Despite the new crops' water needs, a computerized drip system has helped the couple use as much as a third less water than it did with a lawn.

Kewley and Lyons planted an extensive array of fruits and vegetables — including apricot, fig, apple, blueberry, lemon, swiss chard, asparagus, squash, carrots, radish, corn, and eggplant — and have found that the visibility of the garden, not to mention its surplus, has attracted plenty of attention from neighbors.

Community engagement is just what Piedmont CONNECT hopes will spread its message, especially when it comes to landscaping. The group has no specific plans to target the city's largest lots and heaviest water users, instead leaving that up to grassroots momentum. "As people see their neighbors doing things, we expect over time there will be more localized groups," said Smith. "If we do our job right, we're not going to be needed in a couple years."

Weinberger agrees, saying she's hopeful that the organization's goals will be met through the gradual dissemination of pent-up energy, both within Piedmont and beyond. "Some of the Bay Area's biggest movers and shakers and financers live right here," she said, "so if we can change the way they live their lives at home, hopefully we can change the way they run their businesses."

The current flood of interest should sustain the movement for at least a year, but it's unclear what will happen if early adopters convert their yards without converting their neighbors. Families with young children in Piedmont's top-notch schools may be too busy to undertake such a project, and older residents may simply be unable. Likewise, owners of large estates with extensive lawns and ornate hedges may face challenges too steep to overcome with simple word of mouth. For now, at least, organizers hope a revolution is afoot.

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