Is the drought killing trees?
Residents’ efforts to conserve may be fueling the problem
By Kevin Kelly
MENLO PARK — The city claims the heritage oak as its symbol, but the actual trees that line its streets might not feel particularly adored.
The leader of the city’s Fire Department says some trees along his route are in such sad shape that he recently brought up the idea of forming a task force to make sure they’re getting enough water during the drought, now in its fourth year. He even broached the idea of sending firefighters out in a truck to water threatened trees along the rights of way if the cities in its coverage area were unwilling to set up a system to monitor the trees’ health.
“Dead trees can serve as ‘ladder fuel,’ meaning fire can climb dead trees and then with a little wind spread a fire,” Menlo Park Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman wrote in a letter in late June to City Manager Alex McIntyre and the city managers of Atherton and East Palo Alto. “Most of these trees, which are not indigenous, can only survive with water, and with residents switching out landscaping or letting their lawns go brown, it only speeds up the deteriora-
tion. You can see ‘stressed’ and dead or dying examples everywhere now.”
According to the city, 121 trees fell during the 2014-15 fiscal year, almost twice as many as the 65 that toppled the previous year.
McIntyre late last month said he didn’t think the trees that ring the Civic Center complex were being watered and knew of no outreach to the general public reminding them to water their trees.
“I do not believe we are telling residents to water their trees,” he said, calling it “an interesting mixed message” during a drought.
Check the blog
In fact, the city is encouraging residents to water their trees, but only in a blog item posted in July on its website, which means anyone not on the city’s email list is likely not aware of it. The blog item can be viewed at http://tinyurl. com/mptreedrought. “We’re trying to educate the community while scaling down on landscape watering during conservation,” said city arborist Christian Bonner, who acknowledged the city has not done any extra outreach to property owners. Bonner said the city is continuing to water newly planted trees at its facilities and parks, but when it comes to larger, more established trees, it is mainly just making sure to put mulching around their bases.
“The mulch helps to conserve the soil moisture, moderate root temperature and strengthen the root system,” he said. “We’ve identified trees that may be stressed, and we’re making efforts to water them.” Bonner added that trees along street medians and other city rights of way — the ones Schapelhouman is most concerned about — that are adjacent to private property are left to the property owners to care for. This includes trees on vacant lots that abut properties. The city only gets involved in monitoring a tree on private property if it is declared a nuisance. “We do get complaints from neighbors about dead trees, and code enforcement will go and notify the property owner if the tree is dead or a hazard,” he said.
The Fire Department has a similar policy with its weed abatement program. In late spring every year, the department surveys parcels in Menlo Park — many of which are undeveloped lots or neglected properties — that have the potential to become fire hazards when the overgrown weeds dry out over the summer. The department issues notices to properties in violation, and if nothing is done about the situation, it hires a contractor to mow down the weeds and sends the bill to the property owner.
Schapelhouman would like to see something along those lines, but for trees — with the added intent of saving the trees before they die.
Dan Siegel, acting city attorney for Menlo Park, didn’t think the city would ever go as far as forcing property owners to water their trees.
“I don’t think our office would ever suggest that action or that the city manager would authorize it,” Siegel said. “The city has the right for any type of nuisance to go to court and ask for an inspection, like for converting a garage. ... If the property owner doesn’t allow it, it takes a court order, (but) it’s hard to envision a scenario where a tree would rise to that level.”
The issue has taken on a sense of urgency this summer. The state rebranded its Save Our Water campaign in July to Save Our Water and Our Trees, and last month it partnered with California ReLeaf, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire to create two how-to videos on taking care of trees during the drought. For tips and a link to the video, go to www. saveourwater.com/trees.
At Palo Alto’s City Council meeting last month, Mayor Karen Holman went out of her way to remind residents to water their trees.
“The community’s been so responsive to the drought that our trees are experiencing some stress,” Holman said. “While we’re being conservative on water use, don’t be too stingy with watering trees, because they do need to have water, and we are losing some trees.”
Atherton in the past week saw a heritage oak estimated at 200 years old and 50 inches in diameter break in half, blocking a roadway.
“I am seeing a lot of dead trees,” said Sally Bentz, Atherton’s town arborist. “I’m seeing a lot of pines dying, maybe 50 in the past seven months.”
She added, however, that the town is perhaps the exception to the rule, as 95 percent of its large trees are on private property — and most homeowners hire their own arborists. She said the town’s arborists don’t study whether drought is to blame for a tree’s death because there are too many variables involved.
According to Matt Brooks, a research botanist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which has offices in Menlo Park, trees that are succumbing to a drought first appear with patches of dry needles.
“Once there are patches of brown, the tree is likely on its way to death,” Brooks said in an email. “This will progress to the complete tree being covered in brown needles, which will stay on the tree for a year or so before beginning to drop. Tree death during drought is often associated with weakened defenses that allow insect (e.g. bark beetle) infestations that further damage the tree and leads to death.”
He said the Forest Service estimates that tens of millions of trees in the state have already died from the drought.
If an El Niño forms off the coast in December, as anticipated, it could bring much needed rain, but it could also send a lot of trees and tree limbs crashing to the ground or onto cars and homes.
“We’re gonna get winds,” Schapelhouman said. “Mother Nature has a way of correcting things whether you like it or not. If it’s brittle enough, if it’s infested with bugs, it’s coming down.”
Additionally, he said, if the drought continues with no action from the cities on his ‘ladder fuel’ issue, responses to house fires could be affected.
“When there’s a fire, the water we use is the same that comes from your tap,” Schapelhouman said. “So say I got a building on fire, do I just let it burn (because of a water shortage)? We saved the lives. Unless it’s threatening other properties, do we need to do it?
“I’m not going to be talking about trees next year. I’ll be talking about, do we continue to use water for (all structure) fires?”
A heritage oak stands sentinel on Tuscaloosa Avenue in Atherton. “I am seeing a lot of dead trees,” said Sally Bentz, Atherton’s town arborist.
JOHN ORR/DAILY NEWS