Drought taking ugly toll on Claremont

The drought continues to take its toll on the City of Trees as the surrounding leafscape begins to look more like a branchscape.

In an effort to revive and preserve the city’s ailing urban forest, Claremont City Council took action on Tuesday night and considered a series of six recommendations presented by Assistant City Manager Colin Tudor, which they passed, in memory of the late Linda Heilpern.

The recommendations included approval of funds for the removal and replacement of dead trees, the purchase of tree care toolkits for residents to attend to their city trees, a drought assessment of park trees, public outreach, a contract with an outside agency for right-of-way tree watering and the reclassification of a part-time city arborist bringing the city’s total to two full-time licensed tree specialists. 

The council unanimously approved each recommendation, with the exception of Councilmember Opanyi Nasiali, who voted against moving the arborist from part-time to full-time.

At a cost of $250,895 from the general fund via the Landscape and Lighting District monies, the effort put forth by the city to save the drought-stressed trees doesn’t come cheap. But many consider it a drop in the bucket compared to the importance of saving the community’s $84 million asset known as Claremont’s urban forest.

“I’d like to greatly thank the city staff for the recommendations that they’re making for our drought-stressed trees,” said Sustainable Claremont’s Susan Schenk. “I agree with many of them but I do have one concern about the tree care tool kit section, particularly the water bags.”

The botany professor told council that the water bags were designed for trees with trunks less than 12 inches in diameter, newly-planted trees or trees in the Village that need to get water somehow. Since water bags only hold about 20 gallons, even two bags would need to be filled three times to deliver enough water to satisfy a tree with a trunk larger than 12 inches in diameter.

“Even if you did that, most of the water in our sandy loam moves down rather than out and so the water in the water bags is going to do that, meaning it’s only going to irrigate a small area of the root system of the trees. The tree won’t be able to reach the rest of it.”

City trees began showing signs of distress early last year. In the summer of 2014, Inland Urban Forest Group was retained by the city to conduct a series of visual inspections of the city’s street trees and identify those showing signs of drought-stress. 

In June 2014, the consultants identified 470 trees as drought-stressed, with 425 of those trees within the city’s easement on private property and the remaining 45 located in city-maintained areas.

By September that same year, 688 trees were identified as in crisis during a follow-up assessment only a few months later. Now, nearly a year later, 1606 trees have been identified as drought-stressed, and 147 trees are dead due to drought.

Once the trees were identified, the consultants left a door hanger at the residence, notifying the homeowner of the drought-stressed condition of the trees and requesting that they immediately provide adequate water. That action was followed up by a letter from the city’s community services department, notifying the resident of the condition of the tree and proper watering techniques while still conserving water. By fall 2014, the city estimated that 40 percent of property owners began watering their trees effectively, but it hasn’t been enough. The city has issued a call-to-action for residents whose property houses one of these trees.

Last week, volunteers equipped with tree care toolkits went door-to-door in an effort to spread the word and gain residents’ compliance in the care of their street tree. Most were successful in their quest and greeted warmly. However, the process wasn’t without a hiccup or two.

“Of the five houses I went to, two residents were already notified by the city months ago that their trees were dead due to disease and they were going to be removed. So they stopped watering it,” said one volunteer. The city might want to cross-check their lists.”

Claremont currently has 281 trees recommended for removal, 147 of which are dead due to the drought. The remaining 134 trees were recommended for removal prior to the drought assessment because they are diseased or hazardous. The trees are scheduled for removal at the end of September, with replanting scheduled in the winter months. The total cost to remove and replace all 281 trees is $140,145.

City street trees are in desperate need of help. To date, 101 street trees have been categorized in critical drought-stress requiring action within 30 days. There are 535 trees in severe drought-stress that require action within the next 180 days, and 803 that are moderately stressed, requiring action within the next six to nine months.

A decline in the health of many of Claremont’s park trees has not gone unnoticed by city staff, but an assessment of those trees has not yet been conducted. With the council’s approval Tuesday night, staff has scheduled an assessment to take place in mid-September at a cost of $8,000. City staff are hopeful that an increase to the parks’ watering schedules from two days to three days a week will offer the trees some relief.

—Angela Bailey



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