Mature trees need extra water at least once a month during the dry months, and especially during a drought. (Shutterstock photo)

Drought Is Here. Our Trees Will Need Extra Care

Experts from the Regional Water Authority and the Sacramento Tree Foundation share tree care tips

Back Commentary Aug 11, 2022 By Amy Talbot, Stephanie Robinson

Summer is here, and once again California is enduring another serious drought. It’s important for all of us to do our part to conserve water, because we don’t know if 2023 will be dry and if water supplies will be limited. The best place to start is in your landscape, where most household water use occurs. Local water providers are asking everyone to reduce lawn sprinklers by two minutes each cycle for instant savings. But we have an important footnote: Don’t starve your trees.

During the last drought that ended in 2016, satellite imagery revealed a clear loss of tree canopy in the Sacramento region as thousands of trees weakened and eventually died after lawn watering was reduced. It will take decades to replace these trees. We don’t want this to happen again.

Satellite imagery from June 2011 to June 2020 shows canopy loss in the Sacramento area. (Photo courtesy of Sacramento Tree Foundation)

Trees are vital in our urban Sacramento landscapes because they provide much-needed shade. This helps reduce the “heat island” effect that makes our paved cities even hotter in summer. As such, trees are also important in the fight against climate change. They keep our cities cooler while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, trees provide many more benefits, including vital habitat for wildlife and help clean pollution from the air we breathe.

Trees are a long-term investment. It takes many years until a tree grows large enough to provide meaningful shade. Grass, shrubs and flowers can be replaced quickly if they die during drought. But replacing a mature tree takes decades.

Sacramento is proudly recognized as the “City of Trees” for a reason. We have long prioritized our urban tree canopy as a symbol of our regard for nature and our desire to foster a livable, beautiful community. We cannot jeopardize this investment, even during drought.

We know through research that people often believe their mature trees to be drought resistant — after all, they’ve survived decades with water supplied by lawn sprinklers, they say. This is a myth. Mature trees need extra water at least once a month during the dry months, and especially during a drought.

Whether you are a homeowner, a renter or business owner, please adopt these five basic practices to protect trees this year.

  • Test soil moisture by poking a long screwdriver into the dirt beneath the tree canopy. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water.
  • Focus on delivering a very slow, deep drink to trees, allowing water to seep 6 to 8 inches below the surface.
  • For mature trees over 5 years old, give trees a deep soak using a soaker hose or drip irrigation at the drip link directly under the furthest reaches of the branches. But stop when you see runoff: That’s water running onto the pavement. Wait an hour for the water to soak in and start again.
  • For young trees, water two to three times a week, 5 gallons at a time. Try the “bucket method” for a slow, deep soak: Drill a ⅛ inch hole near the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket, fill with water and leave it to drain into the root zone.
  •  Add a 6-inch-thick layer of wood-chip mulch around the base of each tree, as far out as the tree canopy. Keep the mulch 4 inches away from the trunk. This helps hold in soil moisture.

Many local water providers already have landscape watering restrictions in place. It’s important to remember that in the Sacramento region, some suppliers exempt trees from these regulations if watered efficiently with drip irrigation, a soaker hose, hose-end sprinklers, hoses with a shutoff nozzle or the bucket method. Check with your water supplier for more details.  Furthermore, a new state drought emergency regulation bans irrigation of “non-functional” lawn at commercial, industrial and institutional properties but makes an exemption for trees.

So don’t be shy about giving trees the water they need, especially as you reduce lawn watering. Lawns can recover from drought stress, but trees can be killed outright.

As we go about our daily routines, let’s pause to appreciate our wonderful urban trees. They nourish us with color, shade and clean air. Let’s nourish them back by efficiently providing the water they need to withstand drought, ensuring they stay healthy for generations to come.

Amy Talbot is Water Efficiency Program Manager for the Regional Water Authority, representing 20 water providers serving 2 million people in the greater Sacramento region. Stephanie Robinson is Communications and Marketing Manager for the Sacramento Tree Foundation. Find tips for efficiently watering trees at BeWaterSmart.info/trees and sactree.org.

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