California Cemeteries Adapt To Water Restrictions To Avoid Going Dry

Apr 27, 2015
Originally published on April 27, 2015 5:14 pm
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Water restrictions in California impact daily life in all kinds of way - no car washing, no glass of water as you sit down at a restaurant, no watering the lawn and no green landscaping. And that's a concern for people who run cemeteries. Some worry about family members finding dry, parched grass on the plots of their loved ones. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Daniel Potter reports.

DANIEL POTTER, BYLINE: Many cemeteries have already taken steps to dial back water use. At one called Fernwood, in the hills across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Tyler Cassity says they're only sprinkling twice a week for 10 minutes.

TYLER CASSITY: We're surely going to probably take that schedule down by 25 percent.

POTTER: Cassity says for some families, a grave site is part of a relationship and a tradition. He's warning people by summer the grass here could be brown.

CASSITY: It means something in terms of their identity if this is not taken care of. If it's not maintained then some people still see that as an insult to the dead not taking care of them.

POTTER: Cassity also sees after a different graveyard in Southern California called Hollywood Forever.

CASSITY: It's a green, manicured landscape lawn in the middle of basically an arid desert region.

POTTER: Hollywood Forever is famous for its summer movie screenings - one adaptation to help deal with the huge water bill. Another he's looking into - sea grasses that could get by using brackish water Cassity hopes to pump from underground. He says the drought mean cemeteries have to adapt.

CASSITY: We can't afford to not do that because we certainly can't afford two summers from now paying $50,000 or $60,000 a month for a 100-year-old historic cemetery's grounds.

POTTER: Some of California's national cemeteries for veterans also run up huge water bills, says Brad Phillips. He's in charge of cemeteries along the West Coast under the Veterans Administration. I met him at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. It's the size of more than a hundred football fields.

BRAD PHILLIPS: In the peak months, some of the cemeteries can run up to about $100,000.

POTTER: Per month.

PHILLIPS: Per month, in the summer in the heat.

POTTER: Phillips says he loses sleep over whether a national cemetery in California will go dry this summer. Veterans and their families call him.

PHILLIPS: They get very unhappy when the turf starts to go brown.

POTTER: These cemeteries have already trimmed back. A couple in Southern California use recycled water. A fairly new one in Bakersfield in the state's Central Valley doesn't mess with grass at all. It was designed to be part of the area's dry, native landscape. One in San Diego is even trying out artificial turf in places, although not on top of anyone's grave.

MICHAEL GAUSSA: I would drive down a neighborhood first and question why people are keeping green lawns with no purpose in front of their homes.

POTTER: Michael Gaussa is the regional agronomist in California for the National Cemeteries Administration. He wonders if cemeteries, particularly for veterans, shouldn't play by different rules than, say, a suburban lawn.

GAUSSA: We have a real purpose and a mission here at the cemeteries to create a place that's worthy of the people that rest here.

POTTER: California's drought restrictions are set to take effect in June - that is, just after Memorial Day. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Potter in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.