Rain close up in detail. Photo courtesy of Shawn Novack

This commentary was contributed by Shawn Novack, water conservation program manager with the Water Resources Association San Benito County, San Benito County Water District. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors. BenitoLink invites community members to share their ideas and opinions. By registering as a BenitoLink user in the top right corner of our home page and agreeing to follow our Terms of Use, you can write counter opinions or share your insights on current issues. 


Several moisture-rich storm systems are aimed at the West Coast and poised to dump good amounts of rain in parts of California, Oregon and Washington state. Double-digit amounts are possible in some places by the end of the month, making a dent in the region’s prolonged drought-driven water deficit.

It’s the start of an active weather pattern leading into the rainy season, which typically starts around November. This is only the start to our storm season, so don’t get too excited.

A Department of Water Resources spokesperson recently stated that California will need 140% of its’ normal rainfall amounts to fill-up groundwater basins and reservoirs. The drought has seen most of the stored water in the state at historic lows.

Water is a valuable resource in California. It is important that rainwater is captured and allowed to soak into the ground where it can water plants and replenish groundwater supplies. Help conserve water and prevent polluted stormwater runoff through wise gardening and land-use practices. Here are some ideas and land-use practices that help you take advantage of winter rains:


The compost you applied last spring has probably decomposed and fall is a good time to add more. The composting process involves controlled biological decomposition of organic material, sanitization through the generation of heat and stabilization of the final product to make it beneficial to plant growth.

As bacteria, yeast and fungi digest the waste, they make nutrients such as nitrogen more available. When compost is added to soil, the nutrients are slowly released over time, allowing for easy up-take by plants. Basically, the simple process of composting allows large amounts of household, yard and/or animal waste to be transformed into smaller piles of natural soil conditioner.

Feeding plants with compost is not only good for plants, but it also helps reduce polluted runoff into waterways and conserves water resources. Organic wastes, such as manure or even grass clippings, can be a source of water pollution, upsetting the nutrient balance in streams, lakes and the ocean. Adding compost to the soil allows for better water retention, often providing greater drought resistance.

Generally, the frequency and intensity of irrigation may be reduced for plants in composted soil. Composting can dramatically lower runoff volume due to improved water holding capacity, healthy vegetation/ biomass, and increased water infiltration. This is especially beneficial locally since our soils have lots of clay, which make it difficult for water to be absorbed.


Homeowners’ attraction to lush landscaping is reflected in their water use. Almost half of household water in California is used in the yard. This enormous demand far exceeds the modest 10-15 inches of annual rainfall our climate provides. Over-watering is common and results in pesticide and fertilizer-laden water running into storm drains, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean. We also end up relying heavily on imported water resources.

Although periods of water rationing are familiar to Californians due to California’s natural drought cycles, climate models predict that climate change will worsen water shortages. Additionally, as our population continues to increase, water demand could further outstrip natural water availability.

While we all need to work to reduce water use in the landscape and its resulting runoff, gardening in dry conditions does not mean reducing yards to barren concrete slabs with occasional potted cacti dotting the landscape. Instead, reducing lawn areas and devoting more landscape area to groundcovers, shrubs and trees that are drought tolerant can be visually appealing and provide a host of environmental and economic benefits.

Gardens with low water requirements can include a diverse array of colorful and interesting plants, enticing to native birds and butterflies. Fall is an excellent time to plant native and drought tolerant plants. Let the winter rains irrigate your plants so they will be established by next summer and require less water.

Rain gardens:

Rain gardens are a good way to keep runoff on site. Basically, rain gardens receive rain that falls on a roof or other collection surface. The water is channeled, via rain gutters, pipes, swales or curb openings, into a depression in the yard where it soaks into the ground and waters vegetation. Contrary to what many people think, a rain garden is not a pond feature. A properly functioning rain garden holds water for only a short period of time. The purpose is to retain water just long enough for it to percolate into the soil. Most of the time, the bed of the rain garden is dry.

Rain gardens are basically home bioretention basins. They slow the flow of water, allowing it to percolate into the ground, where plants and soil microorganisms break down and remove pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrogen, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. By keeping water on-site and preventing it from flowing onto the pavement, less contaminated water enters storm drains and local water bodies (rivers, streams, lakes and/ or the ocean). Damage to local aquatic ecosystems from erosion and pollution is avoided. Furthermore, rain gardens provide a host of other attractive benefits to homeowners: drinking water used for irrigation is decreased, less money is spent on landscape irrigation and if designed correctly, the likelihood of property flooding is reduced.


Need some ideas on water-wise landscapes? The Water Resources Association of San Benito County (WRASBC) has free water-wise landscape plans. They also have pamphlets that give step-by-step instructions on how to create a water-wise garden. They also have a list of native California plants that thrive in San Benito County.

You can also get an irrigation check and assistance programming your irrigation controller to comply with Stage 1 of the Water Shortage Contingency Plan for the Hollister Urban Area that was enacted last spring. Call 637-4378 or visit their website at www.wrasbc.org