Recently, conversations during my AquaFit class at the Y have been about water. Not the water in the outdoor pool, but the lack of water due to California’s 4th year of drought. We dream up new solutions: “Let’s pipe in water from the Columbia River. Use up some of that extra rain that falls on Washington and Oregon.”

“The new desalination plant in North County is coming on-line this fall. That’ll eventually give San Diego County about 10% or so of the water we’ll need. We should build more plants.”

“But running it takes a lot of power, and that comes from fossil fuels.”

“Northern California wastes the water that could be sent south to farmers. They’re protecting the delta smelt by letting it run back into the ocean and draining reservoir lakes to protect a few steelhead trout.”

“Los Angeles wastes water too. 65% of the city is covered in asphalt and concrete, so storm water can’t seep into the ground water. Yet their flood-control system shunts enough water into the ocean to supply water to half a million people. So where do they take water? From the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado river we all use.”

We don’t spend much time in Southern California gossiping about the weather (because it’s always pretty much the same). Here we ruminate about water. As Joan Didion wrote in her classic essay collection The White Album, “Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is.” San Diego recycles part of its city water supply in a program called “toilet to tap.” Now they changed the name of the program to “pure water” for obvious reasons, but I do not think reverently about the water coming out of our taps.

I’ve just completed a gardening project as head of our HOA (home owners association) landscaping committee. Our focus has been on xeriscaping and installing a dry creek as a “water feature” in front of the condo building. Because water rationing will only increase as the drought drags on, the creek will of course, contain no water.  What a contrast to the creek I installed last summer at our lake home in Wisconsin! That creek will funnel water off the yard because we have too much.

Dry creek using blue stones to contrast with the multicolor landscaping stones

Many California residents didn’t know what the term “xeriscaping” meant until Governor Brown used the word in his water-rationing speech last week, announcing that California municipalities will henceforth use 25% less water. Xeri means dry, as in Xerox®, i.e., dry copy. Xeriscaping is a landscape method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that uses drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and efficient irrigation, such as the underground drip method. (Midwest and German friends, you don’t need to know this.) Our HOA committee boned up on xeri and now we’re proud to be ahead of the game. Our drought-tolerant trees, plants, and flowers now stand proud among multi-colored rocks, boulders and pebbles; and our dry creek, filled with smooth, blue river stones, winds around palms from the building foundation to the street, where it won’t leave one drop of precious water.

Palm trees used in xeriscaping

Last fall, I returned from lush Wisconsin with its 50 shades of green to parched, brown yards in San Diego. I told my friends about how I had to slope and drain that lot so that it flowed into a “rain garden” and then into White Ash Lake. Their reaction to my blog How to Drain a Wet Lot,” was “duh.” When I return to Wisconsin in May, I know I’ll find the same reaction when I describe our xeriscaping project to my neighbors there. The rainfall in Polk County in one month, June of 2014, was 9.5 inches; San Diego’s rainfall for that one year was 5 inches, 50% of normal.

For more on California’s water wars, go to

I returned to San Diego to find brown lawns and wilted trees. Obviously, my readers in the U.S. southwest do not have a problem with excess rain runoff. What a contrast to Northern Bliss, our summer lake home in Wisconsin, where too much rain became a major challenge in developing the cabin lot we had purchased last fall. During the month of June, we received 9.5 inches of rain!

 Preparing the lot.

Preparing the lot.

I’d always wanted an orchard. So I devised a plan that included a row of evergreens near the lot line for a windbreak (to dampen the effect of cold north winds), winding paths and flower beds, and half a dozen fruit trees—apple, cherry and plum. But after those June rains, I realized that what I had was better suited to developing terraces of rice! Those precious fruit trees would drown in that wet clay.

2 Tree-planting rig, web

Tree Planting rig.

Before I could plant anything, I needed to bring in two semi-loads of fill to bring the lot up to road level, followed by a layer of topsoil. Then I had to devise a drainage system that would somehow divert the excess rain runoff into the lake, keeping it off my neighbor’s yard. I thought of the dry creeks often seen in desert landscapes and experienced an aha moment: how about a creek that winds around spruce trees and into the lake?

With the expert help of Lake Services Unlimited, 5 gorgeous Black Hill spruce trees were delivered, one by one, from Cotter Tree Farm. We arranged them in a zigzag pattern to save space and to make a more pleasing arrangement than all-in-a-row. Next the creek was dug, lined with landscaping fabric, and filled on the bottom and sides with a single layer of medium-size boulders. At first, the creek looked quite artificial. But after we added other sizes of stone, topped it off with pebbles, and mixed up the rocks, it looked natural. The final touch was bringing in seven boulders for the property. The truck dumped them all at the edge of the lot. “Where do you want them?” asked the driver. This is not like rearranging your living room furniture! I knew I had but one chance to get it right. We put one boulder at the head of the creek, another among the trees, a third at the middle bend in the creek, and three for “seating” overlooking the rain garden. The final boulder was left for seating next to the cabin overlooking the lake.

Two trees planted; plywood planks prevent rig from sinking, web

Two trees planted; plywood planks prevents rig from sinking.

4 Five trees planted and dry creek prepared, web

Five trees planted and dry creek prepared.

5 Placement of second boulder

Placement of second boulder.

6 Dry creek landscape from road, web

Dry creek landscape from road.

We planted two groups of Siberian iris in the mulch surrounding the spruce and added lime creeping jenny to spread around a gray boulder. I purchased a few dozen day lily plants—six varieties to bloom from spring to fall—that now span the entire lot at the roadside. Lilies grow like weeds in Wisconsin; fortunately, they resist road salt, wind and extreme temperatures.

We extended an existing lakeside path to circle around the rain garden, dry creek, and orchard.  We added a wrought iron bistro table and two chairs (half-price in September!) A final touch—next year—will be a bridge over the creek so that we can access the spruce on the other side. I’ve learned that some folks with absolutely no landscape drainage problems build dry creeks just because they like the way they look.  How I love turning problems into opportunities!

8.Landscaping completed

Landscaping completed.

9  Bistro in center of orchard, web

Bistro in center of orchard.