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As California Drought Wears On, LA Starts To Lose Its Trees


The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote, I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree. But what if that tree is in drought-stricken California? Conservation measures mean a lot of the trees that give Los Angeles shade from the heat are getting a whole lot less water. Gloria Hillard reports that the California drought is killing off its green spaces.


GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In this small patch of Los Angeles's Griffith Park, the California sycamore tree, with its distinctive mottled white and gray bark, is struggling.

LAURA BAURENFEIND: As you see, the top of the sycamore is dying.

HILLARD: Laura Baurenfeind is the principal forester for LA's Department of Recreation and Parks. She says the city's parks have lost an estimated 14,000 trees in the last year due to the draft.

BAURENFEIND: The effect to the trees has been - I don't want to use the word devastating. But it's definitely taking its toll. And it's not just here in Griffith or in the hottest parts of the valley. It is citywide.

HILLARD: Down busy streets to a long, clogged freeway, you'll see them - stressed and dying trees. The city has cut back irrigation for trees and shrubbery on city medians. And as water conservation measures and hefty consumer rebates fuel the rush to remove lawns and sprinklers, there's concerned that mature residential trees, sustained by lawn irrigation, are also at risk.


HILLARD: That's the sound of a popular drought-resistant landscape. White and gray gravel sloping from front door to curb checkerboard this North Hollywood neighborhood. If this is the sign of the times, it worries University of California environmental horticulturist Don Hodel.

DON HODEL: When you consider all the amenities and benefits that landscapes and urban forests provide us, by not watering them, we're going to jeopardize these trees and these urban forests. And we're going to be in trouble.

JULIE BUCKNER: This is the hottest part of the lawn, on the side of my house right near the air-conditioning unit, which is working overtime.

HILLARD: Homeowner Julie Buckner says in heeding the call to save water, she took out her irrigation and cut down two front yard trees in preparation for her new drought-tolerant landscape.

BUCKNER: You can feel the difference stepping onto my neighbor's property and this property. They're nice and green, and we're nice and dry. Without any irrigation, without any lawn, without any trees it's really, really, really hot.

HILLARD: Little shade is something residents of Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles, have been dealing with for some time.

AARON THOMAS: There's a huge sound wall there. You see the freeways, like, just yards away from us. And I see only one tree, one street tree, within these three blocks.

HILLARD: Aaron Thomas is with North East Trees. The nonprofit plants trees in tree-poor communities.

THOMAS: Many of the streets are blighted because of the lack of green space. And trees provide huge public health benefits.

HILLARD: Thomas says tree canopy in low-income neighborhoods could be further affected as water becomes more expensive. Longtime resident Andrea Galvan says many of her neighbors have stopped watering lawns and trees because of the cost.

ANDREA GALVAN: They need water. It's sad that they don't have any. I don't know what to do with the drought. It's a lot.


HILLARD: At the corner of a busy intersection, a newly planted tree stands a little taller than the others on this street. Silva Sarkassian smiles. She acknowledges not many people want to use extra water these days. But it's just a small bucket once a week.

SILVA SARKASSIAN: It's so dry. If there's no water at all, the tree will not grow. We think to the future, you know?

HILLARD: The future, she says, when people will want to stop and sit underneath the tree outside her business. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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