Paula Christianson of parks services fastens a water bag to a tree.

Paula Christianson of parks services fastens a water bag to a tree.

Drought causing plant casualties

Local landscape is already changing.

If the drought drags on, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows could look a lot different in a few years.

“We’re not going to be the rainforest capital anymore,” says Mike Lascelle, a garden centre manager and writer.

Typical West Coast water-loving shrubs like rhododendrons or azaleas are wilting, turning brown or dying, in both commercial, city-owned boulevards and front yards.

They’ll have to be replaced, otherwise they’ll be a fire hazard. But when they do, a less-lush looking plant may take their place.

“I’ve been gardening in the valley since the 1980s and I’ve never seen it this dry, this early – ever,” said Lascelle.

“Our summers have been getting a lot drier.”

With Metro Vancouver’s Stage 2 watering restrictions in effect, people can only sprinkle their lawn one day a week for five hours.

However, they can hand-water their shrubs in an attempt to keep them alive. But that requires getting the water to the roots under the surface and could require holding the hose over the plant for several minutes.

Perforating the soil so water soaks in, or using a device that attaches to a hose, could do the same.

“We’ve had the driest May on record,” said Lascelle.

“These plants aren’t used to this little water.”

The local landscape is already changing for city owned spaces. New plots of boulevards or medians are being planted with drought-tolerant grasses, instead of shrubs, said Geoff Mallory, manager of parks and open spaces.

In some parts, those grasses are already looking nice, he added.

But the city is also trying to keep alive its own rhodos and rainforest type shrubs during this dry stretch by hand watering whenever possible or directing sprinklers during permitted times.

“We’re having a number of them that are very stressed.

“We have a lot of rhododendrons and they are really suffering and they won’t bounce back.”

The same struggle is going on to keep young street trees alive on Maple Ridge’s boulevards. The city has asked residents to water such trees outside their homes.

“The public response has been great,” Mallory said.

They’re responding in the hundreds, thanks to an idea by parks worker Paula Christensen.

She suggested the city provide residents water bags, for a $10 deposit. The porous bags are filled with water then left at the base of a tree to keep it alive.

In the first two weeks, about 360 watering bags have been given out in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

“And we’ve ordered another 360,” Mallory said.

People value their trees in Maple Ridge, he added.

Under Stage 2 watering restrictions, washing your car is OK, provided it’s done with a spring-loaded nozzle. Commercial car washes are also still open, but power washing driveways, sidewalks or buildings isn’t allowed, said Davin Wilson, in the city’s public works department.

That’s requiring power washing companies or homeowners to consider other options, such as washing and rinsing with a bucket and brush.

“They have to find other means, without using pressure washers, to cut back consumption.”

One way that could reduce water use is by installing water meters at the service connection to people’s homes. Most of Maple Ridge’s homes already have that space provided to allow a meter be installed, should council so decide.

But a municipal engineer says so far, based on a 2013 report, there’s not much difference between cities that have water meters on its single family homes, and those that don’t.

A more definitive report from Metro Vancouver is due out this fall and will compare longer-term water consumption of cities, such as Surrey and West Vancouver, which have universal water metering with other Metro Vancouver cities that don’t.

Installing meters can allow the city to bill residents based on what they use rather than a flat rate.

Maple Ridge already meters water use for industrial and commercial buildings and for any property that has in-ground sprinklers, a swimming pool or is more than an acre in area.

Staff would have to weigh the cost of installing water meters and maintaining them and reading them, versus the benefits of the water saved.

Low-flow toilets and shower heads and other conservation measures are also helping curb consumption. On per capita basis, Maple Ridge uses 408 litres of water a day, about the norm for Metro Vancouver cities, while Pitt Meadows consumption is third highest at 508. But some of Pitt Meadows water is used for farming purposes.

While urban areas cope with the drought, the wild areas are also suffering with low stream flows.

The provincial government on Wednesday declared a Level 4 drought in the South Coast and lower Fraser River areas due to low stream flow conditions as extreme dry weather extends to more parts of B.C.