Even drought-tolerant trees die in San Diego

Is water conservation backfiring?

Torrey Pines State Reserve
  • Torrey Pines State Reserve

San Diego needs many more trees and must take better care of the sparse trees it has.

Trees shade us from the sun, reduce urban heat and noise, save energy, raise property values, improve air and water quality, mitigate climate-change effects, and create wildlife habitats, among many positive benefits.

The city seriously lags in the planting and maintenance of trees. It has a tree canopy — the layer of leaves, branches, and stems that cover the ground, as seen from the air — that is remarkably low for an American city. Tree San Diego, a nonprofit set up in 2014, says the local tree canopy is 60 to 70 percent below what it should be for the health of humans and the environment.

Source: October 2016 San Diego Tree Canopy Assessment

Source: October 2016 San Diego Tree Canopy Assessment

What’s the problem? San Diego has a Mediterranean climate featuring long periods without moisture. Even drought-tolerant trees can die, and trees are more susceptible to disease when they get little water. Political correctness gets part of the blame. Says Anne Fege, chair of the City of San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board, “During this drought, businesses and government agencies have turned off irrigation systems to get credit for ‘gallons saved,’ so trees have died across the region. Even the strictest drought restrictions allow for watering trees.”

Other big problems are indifference and neglect. Between 1985 and 2002, San Diego area tree cover dropped 29 percent while the urban area expanded 41 percent, according to a study by American Forests. In the past decade, San Diego’s tree health and canopy cover have declined sharply, says Fege. Among the causes were “deferred maintenance” and “a constrained municipal budget,” she says. Few local politicians realize the importance of street and park trees.

“At the low point in about 2010, the city had three tree trimmers, a park arborist, a forester in the undergrounding utilities’ capital improvement program, but no city forester or arborist for street trees,” says Fege. Later, the staff was increased by two positions, but according to a 2012 report by the Society of American Foresters, 12 large U.S. cities had an average urban forestry staff of 39, ranging from 7 to 171.

Fege warns that San Diego’s comparatively small staff “clearly is insufficient” for the city’s forestry program. Community leaders, business, and the public must push to get the budgets to acceptable levels. At one point, San Diego city councilmembers recommended funding the planting of 2000 trees in fiscal 2017, along with restoring some staff positions and removing tree planting from the lowly “amenity” status. However, the tree planting was not funded.

“I think trees and the urban tree canopy have been a low priority for all our local governments, especially during the Great Recession,” says Bill Tippets, retired supervisor of the state’s Habitat Conservation Programs for Southern California. Trees and the urban canopy “are likely to stay as a foster child in city functions until the value of the urban tree canopy assessment is accepted by and integrated into the City of San Diego’s — and the region’s — climate action plans.”

According to an urban tree canopy assessment completed this summer, the San Diego urban tree canopy covers an unimpressive 13 percent of the land area. “The 13 percent canopy is low,” says Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, head of the spatial analysis laboratory at the University of Vermont and quarterback of the San Diego assessment. “New York City has 21 percent and San Jose has 15 percent.” He does take climate differences into account. Also, he warns, “With no or limited arborists, [San Diego] will have difficulty not only maintaining the tree canopy it has but dealing with dangerous or hazardous trees. Trees are an important part of the green infrastructure, and not maintaining them will cost the city more in the long run.”

According to the urban canopy assessment, 21 percent of the San Diego urban area is not suitable for trees, but 66 percent is potentially available for planting trees. The University of Vermont study shows that Solana Beach, Del Mar, and Encinitas are the only cities in the county with an urban canopy of more than 20 percent.

Source: October 2016 San Diego Tree Canopy Assessment

Source: October 2016 San Diego Tree Canopy Assessment

“San Diego has few native trees,” says Fege, as chaparral and coastal sage habitats dominate native vegetation. However, “coast live oaks grow throughout the county.” They are slow-growing and commonly planted in urban areas. Cottonwood, willow, and sycamore trees grow along rivers and creeks, but they require extra irrigation and space when planted as street, park, or residential trees.

“For me, the Torrey pine is a good tree for coastal areas, where it is naturally found,” says Derek Langsford, biology practices manager at Escondido’s Tierra Data, Inc. “It may be the most ideally suited tree for our region that doesn’t need a lot of supplemental resources — water, fertilizer — to do well.” (The Torrey pine is a rare species that grows naturally only in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and one of the Channel Islands, but people grow them from seeds and plant them elsewhere.)

San Diego’s Mediterranean climate (dry summers and wet winters) is ideal for trees native to Australia, South Africa, Chile, Spain, and Italy. However, many kinds of trees have been planted in the county with “mixed success,” says Fege.

An example is the massive planting of eucalyptus trees shortly after the year 1900. According to a 1970 article in the Journal of San Diego History, the Santa Fe Railway (short for the renowned Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe) decided it wanted eucalyptus trees to be used as railroad ties. In 1906 it bought the property now known as Rancho Santa Fe and planted three million eucalyptus trees on 8800 acres. Others in San Diego County followed suit. But 20 to 30 years earlier, the Southern Pacific Railroad had experimented with 44,000 such trees and found the poles rotted excessively and the ties cracked and wouldn’t hold spikes. The railroad ditched the experiment. The Santa Fe system apparently had not done its homework. Or maybe the Southern Pacific kept its expensive flop a secret.

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Yet another unfunded mandate for an inadequate proposal to simply make up the deficit for where we should be in relation to the rest of the country.

Doesn't seem to matter if it's trees, parks land, water and sewer and road infrastructure, affordable housing, social services, economic opportunities, or accountability by public officials. There are always studies and plans; but if one is impolite enough to ask later about actions and results, politicos offer the arrogance of either hypocrisy or silence.

There are only three constituencies with power and influence in San Diego: the military, hoteliers, and developers. And they're all focused on how much they can take without putting anything back. So the slow collapse of our ecology and economy becomes as relentless and inevitable as cliff erosion.

Cassander: There is a great poet who wrote the line, "Just you and I, Cassandra, just you and I." Quoting that line is my way of saying that I agree with your thesis. (I can't remember the poet's name.)

Because these power groups have so much influence, San Diego concentrates on the quantity of life, not on the quality of life. If you believe in nature, the arts, economic help for the poor and middle class, infrastructure, and other subjects that reflect the quality of life, you have little to no voice.

Let me add another thing: nothing will be done about the homeless situation until their presence interferes significantly with tourism, Padres attendance, etc. Best, Don Bauder

Sad to say I have to agree.

Long ago, I heard that Coronado Police would pick up the homeless and on the drive across the bridge tell them, "This time, we're dropping you off on this side of the island. If we ever see you again, we're dropping you off the other" -- that is, out into the ocean.

There's going to be a lot of room for ugly in the Trump Administration. We already see CalTrans and sanitation crews "cleaning up" by trashing homeless people's tents and encampments. It's simply a matter of time before we discover local police and border patrol "cleaning up" by eliminating the homeless themselves.

Cassander: I am afraid you are right. In fact, in every area in which he has made appointments, it is clear he wants to reverse the progress that has been made over many decades. Will he succeed? I think the very people who elected him -- white nationalists, and others -- will get the short end of the stick. Then perhaps the nation can correct its grave mistake. Best, Don Bauder

Of those inadequate numbers of trees in SD, too many are eucalyptus. If you want shade, the "euc" isn't your tree. They are tall, and tend to have branches shear off unexpectedly. Arborists in the area generally don't like the imports from Australia. Their advantage is that they will grow almost anywhere they are planted, and once established, usually don't need any special watering.

The natives, oaks and sycamores, are native only to canyon bottoms, close to stream beds. They can be grown elsewhere, but the oaks especially need irrigation to survive. If we go back a couple centuries, we would find no heavily forested areas outside the mountains. The area had for its forests the chaparral, aka sage scrub, the varied considerably from coast to foothills and up to higher elevations. Unlike so much of the US, the area just didn't have anything like vast boreal forests, or rain forests either.

This is a complicated subject, and if the developers keep planting fast-growing eucalyptus and pines in all the new developments, and planting them in fill, the trees will disappoint. Such trees end up too large in about thirty years, are prone to tearing loose and falling down in wind storms, and have to be removed. When removed the process starts all over again.

Of course, SD could do much better. Its neighborhood parks often have few trees; you can see that more were planned and planted, and later removed and not replaced. Oh, Kev-boy, those missing trees are also part of the "infrastructure" that you promised to restore and repair.

Visduh: Good point. The eucalyptus trees are definitely not suitable. But developers find them profitable because they grow fast. Who thinks about 30 years later? Best, Don Bauder

Hopefully nobody is planting more eucalyptus here. It's hard to believe how protective HOA's and "arborists" are of other peoples' eucalyptus. Nobody who looks out their window at a 30 year old, 80--90 ft. eucalyptus swaying and listing about four or five feet from your home, in a small piece of earth cares about keeping eucalyptus trees, I promise. Both trees have even less "earth" now as STUPID decision makers, (board members) manager and moneymaking landscapers dug up lots of roots to widen some sidewalks and then more to save a few dollars lawn watering pipe. Didn't matter that a highly qualified expert cerfified arborist, in his independent report, advised manager to reduce heavy and unsupported limbs from that tree and one across from it right away in fall 2014. The highly specialized report couldn't be more clear about those being two of the most hazardouis of about 200, therefore '14, with less hazardous trees for '15 and '16.

Nope, because our "tree service" guy instead "had no issue with" those eucalyptus trees he gave us his schedule for '14, '15 & '16 that ignored those and about five other giant, eucalyptus, taking his $32 to $36,000 a year trimming, thinning, and pruning pepper trees, magnolias and liquid ambers. Of course greedy decision makers (board members) don't live right next to the old overgrown eucalyptus' so they'll let the trees fall or "whatever" even if they crush and destroy two buildings that house a total of 56 units rather then spend their/our money earmarked again for excessive, wasteful landscaping, $13,000 flower beds and always more grass. I attended the San Diego Urban Canopy session to learn about our urban tree needs, and I love trees. But while this dumb bunch won't get rid of the "shadeless", failing eucalyptus trees that will fall, they will get rid of nice small trees, the kind we need, so landscapers can rplant labor intensive flower beds to get more money from us doing the picky garden work. I am so ashamed to live at Point Loma Tennis Club where conspicuous consumption rules. Watch these fools to call the falling trees "an act of God" when it happens; they'll blame God.

obshshelly: San Diego has a critical shortage of arborists. Possibly, those arborists would make politically comfortable, short-term decisions anyway. Best, Don Bauder

Thanks for this important story. The new City Council should pay attention to our tree deficit.

Olive trees thrive in San Diego's climate, just as they do in Spain, and they are attractive singly and in groups. The new Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles has a small adjacent garden filled with olive trees and low benches made from tree stumps. (For all we know, they may have come from San Diego!) Jacarandas also do well here and should be promoted as street trees downtown, to join those others which turn entire blocks blue in mid-June.

The City is right to take down deadly eucalyptus, but it has been overzealous with pepper tree removal, and in either case trees that have been eliminated always should be promptly replaced. I also recently noticed that many pine trees have disappeared from the west side of Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery and no seedlings now stand in their place. I cannot imagine a single good argument for such shortsightedness.

monaghan: None of my interviewees mentioned olive trees. It sounds like they might work well, as they do in climates similar to San Diego's. i agree with you on pines: why remove them? Best, Don Bauder

The olive trees are really nice, some near us and at Baron's in Point Loma.

obshshelly: Russian olive trees are said to be successful. Also, their output is supposedly good for Vodka Martinis. Best, Don Bauder

Trees are swell. More would be better. They give us oxygen, they remove carbon, they give us shade, they help retain moisture in the air ... they are clearly beneficial. Perhaps the most important thing is that they soothe the soul in the otherwise harsh concrete city.

But let's not forget that before humans came to San Diego, there were NO trees.

Yes, at the coast there were some Torrey Pines (more like bushes than trees); there were manzanita (again bushy) in East County; There were scruffy oaks (none of the really magnificent type) in some mountain areas--but very few. Almost every tree you see was put here by humans. Almost every tree you see is not native, not well adapted to our climate, and requires water and care that are in short supply.

Some day our infant biotech industry will give us new trees and useful, attractive plants that are ideal for the climate we will soon have. We'll have plenty of concerns about that when it happens. Meanwhile we are stuck with the stupid palms, eucalyptus, and liquidambar trees whose leaves clutter our lawns and streets. (I think that those irritate me because they almost look like maple trees, which I love, but they are imposters. Yes, I miss the great trees of other parts of the USA.)

swell: You give an interesting and important bit of information. Many of San Diego's trees are in unnatural environments, although I would argue that Torrey pines, which ARE native, may be an answer presently. Best, Don Bauder

We need to accept that everyone who wants to live in San Diego cannot. We need to stop trying to build, build, build. We need to say, "Enough is enough, we have far too much land paved over, we're going to save what's left." That means that housing will get really expensive and some people will need to leave. Some cry, "But you need dishwashers and gardeners and other 'low-income' people!" What that means is, wages for those jobs will rise until "enough" dishwashers and gardeners can afford to live here.

So long as too many people believe we need to build and provide a house for everyone who wants to live at the beach, we'll continue to see overcrowding and pollution and traffic and delays and shortages. We have to accept reality.

jnojr: Excellent points. If you look at the median salary required to buy the median-priced home, it's axiomatic that everyone who wants to live in San Diego can't do so. I don't believe that the county can continue to build homes willy-nilly, supposedly to relieve the unaffordability problem.

The building industry wants to knock down the existing height limitation rules. I don't agree with that. I believe in quality of life, not quantity of life. Best, Don Bauder

Trees play a significant role in the Climate Action Plan; contributing more to GHG reduction than any local action except mass transit and increasing electric car charging stations. (CAP Table 3.1)

There are plenty of trees that do fine in San Diego once established. I've planted six from three species: Pearl Acacia, Bottle Brush and Chinese Flame trees and they are thriving. The city has great recommendations for selecting trees, i.e. trees appropriate for the parkway space between the sidewalk and curb,

And palm trees don't count. They're actually a part of the grass family.

martygraham619: It sounds like you have some good advice there. Best, Don Bauder

Governor Brown's ONLY priorities with energy and water policies are: 1. Establishing CA as being at the forefront of conservation and environmental legislation, hopefully inspiring other states and nations to move towards "greener" laws and policies. 2. Making sure energy and water policies benefit his friends, family, and campaign donors.

He does NOT care about the economic impacts, fairness, or overall impact of these policies and laws to quality of life in CA. Those concerns get ZERO priority.

Thus, we have stupid policies which have insignificant impacts to our water usage, like turning off water to showers at the beach, prohibiting hosing off driveways, or letting trees die from lack of water, while the agriculture industry continues to make money growing crops like alfalfa and almonds.

ImJustABill: I think Gov. Brown's green energy priorities are sound for the state. California SHOULD be in the lead in green energy, because it has a citizenry that has proved it can think about future generations, not just current consumption. Best, Don Bauder

Perhaps CA should be in the lead in green energy. Gov. Brown's policies might be good for the entire world in the long run. It's doubtful, as I don't see how CA has the leverage to negotiate with China, Russia, and India regarding climate change policies. Until that happens, CA's energy and water usage has little effect on the entire world. But the policies are definitely bad for the vast majority of CA residents. Policies which force us to spend more money and more time for energy, water, and transportation do not help CA residents.

Like a Spanos, the eucalyptus is top heavy with shallow roots. Could topple over if ground support is too saturated.

shirleyberan: That is a poignant analogy. Best, Don Bauder

Bill Wisniewski: Why does Bill Horn keep getting elected? Your points are well taken. Best, Don Bauder

Bill Wisniewski: Do you have some Vietnam insights you can share with us? Best, Don Bauder

Mike Murphy: Yet they consider themselves "public servants." Best, Don Bauder

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