TJ Newman, ASLA, Director of Parks
How did you and Mission Oaks Recreation & Park District earn your Blue Thumb?
Mission Oaks Recreation & Park District is a diverse community of over 63,000 people and borders eight other park and recreation agencies. Before Newman came on board in 2007, their irrigation work had been contracted out, and even though they had a central irrigation control system that was installed in 1996, the system was managed by that outside contractor. That changed with Newman’s arrival and the hiring of a skilled irrigation technician. Over a three-year period of time, they made multiple repairs and upgraded equipment that had been installed in the mid-to-late 80s.
With the irrigation system working as efficiently as possible, the district’s next step was to consider redesigning some of the parks that were not efficient in terms of their use of space and water, especially looking at their larger community-level parks that ranged in size from 17 to 10 acres.
Newman is especially proud of the great support the district receives from the Board of Directors, County Board of Supervisors, Advisory Board and residents. The advisory board set up a sustainability subcommittee to help address issues, especially related to resource and water conservation. Careful consideration has been given to Chicken Ranch Slew, which meanders through the district, as it is the only natural resource for water they have.
Why is water efficiency personally important to you?
As a Landscape Architect from Arizona, Newman said, “I just think about the nature of my profession. I’m interested in the natural world, sustainability, preservation and regeneration when it’s at all possible.” Having gone to school where there were few trees and hardly any water, he became acutely aware of the value of each and every tree and the importance of water conservation, especially through restoration projects that he’s been involved with throughout his career. Newman’s favorite trees include native oaks and tupelos, Nyssa sylvatica.
How do you find the concepts of water efficiency received by the general public?
“As good public servants, we know that we’re entrusted with public funds; if we can use water more wisely, then that’s just good governance. Sometimes parks are the only green space many people know and, as such, the district tries to promote programs that get kids—large and small— out into nature.
Serving as a community role model, the district looks for new ways to beautify the park and save water—such as planting native grasses— tough, attractive plants for people to see growing in a natural setting – pretty and carefree.”
What do you like best about a water-efficient landscape? What benefits are there?
“I like the fact that it looks a little bit wild. There’s a wildness about it that is attractive and sets you out from your other neighbors. You know, when you’re driving down the street, you notice the houses with native grasses, blooming plants and wildflowers.”
Newman believes that turf areas have their proper place, and it’s important to promote the actual, functional aspects of turf or lawn— play and recreation— while introducing a paradigm shift regarding the way people think about traditional lawns and informing them of myriad, beautiful alternatives.
The district is incorporating perimeter paths into the parks where people can enjoy walks. These are perfect opportunities for the district to create native borders and demonstration gardens.
How do you see the landscape of the future in this park?
Chicken Ranch Slew’s banks are eroding, and they’ve been losing trees that in the past helped protect the banks. The Slew is a native streambed worth preserving; Newman described the plan for a nature education facility tied to the resurrection of the stream that included a demonstration garden that will incorporate River-Friendly Landscaping principles, a community garden, interpretative signage and features such as cut out areas of the curb so water can drain to areas where the water can be filtered before entering the stream.
Surrounded by at least four schools, this project would provide a wonderful opportunity for community interaction and education. As Newman says with excitement, “We’ve got a built-in audience of young people that we can encourage to get outside and learn about the real world.”
What savings have you experienced (water, money and maintenance)?
The park district has about 100 acres of parkland, and about 68 acres of that is irrigated. After personnel, water is the second highest expenditure.
Rather than irrigating according to Evapotranspiration (ET), which is a measurement of water loss through the combination of water transpired from vegetation and evaporated from the soil and plant surfaces, Newman is an advocate of soil moisture sensors, instruments that monitor soil water content. Newman feels that these sensors are similar to how he was taught, “If you want to know if your plant needs water, stick your finger in the soil to feel if it’s wet. It makes sense to me.” Part of Newman’s water management strategy is to let the amount of water in the soil fluctuate between being moist and drying out, so the plants develop a tolerance to varying conditions.
The district has been testing a number of soil moisture sensors from various manufacturers to determine how much water savings can be achieved. In May 2009, a comparison of two areas was made—one with a soil sensor and one without. Five inches of water was applied to the area without a soil sensor, and four inches of water was applied to a similar size area that used a soil sensor. That’s a 20 percent savings! In the summer of 2010, a savings of nearly 40 percent was achieved.
One of the district’s biggest obstacles to irrigating efficiently is water pressure and water volume, so several parks use booster pumps to achieve maximum efficiency, and they’ll continue to work on infrastructure problems.
What do you think about this changing California landscape?
“Our largest single resource is our soil. Aside from that, our most obvious asset is our trees.” The district will be planting a lot of trees over the next 10 or 15 years. Many of the existing trees have reached the end of their lifespan, so it’s time to start replacing them. Newman’s goal is to locate trees that have been grown and cared for properly and then it will be up to the district to plant them properly and give them proper care.
In closing, Newman emphasized that their efforts toward the efficient use of water is truly a district-wide approach from the advisory board through to the maintenance and recreation staff. During one summer program, Newman recalls the staff actually asking permission to turn the water hose on to squirt the kids rather than just doing it, an example of their awareness about water efficiency. “As an organization, we get it.”
What are the top three things someone can do right now to use water efficiently outdoors?
- Make yourself more aware of how much water is being used in your landscape. Take advantage of your water provider’s Water-Wise House Call program, a free service that will provide specific information about your landscape. Once you know what’s going on in the first place, you can make appropriate changes.
- Try to educate yourself on the wildlife that might benefit from your accommodating them in your home’s landscape. Nothing makes you appreciate nature more that sitting out on your porch and watching birds, squirrels, butterflies, bees and whatever comes into your back yard. You’re providing a habitat for them.
- If you have an irrigation system or are going to install one, get some good advice about how it might be redesigned or how you can utilize more efficient watering practices. Water what you need to—the plants—and don’t water what you don’t need to.