PLAYA DEL REY, California – Less than a year ago, the Playa del Rey Natural Gas Storage Operation was fronted by a four-acre lawn that was as green and lush as any golfer’s dream. In December 2013, the company tore out a third of it, then planted over 6,000 California native and non-native drought-tolerant plants.
Today, the native garden (also known as a “xeriscape,” for those in the water-conservation business) saves the Southern California Gas Company more than $5,000 a month in water and maintenance; has eliminated the weekly noise and pollution of blowers, edgers and mowers that once plagued its suburban neighbors; provides a habitat for birds and butterflies; and reduces the company’s water consumption by an estimated 3,272,500 gallons per year.
This is the company’s way of showing that they “walk the talk” on conserving the state’s most precious resource during its exceptional and protracted drought.
That’s how Bryan Gordon, the company’s Sustainable Programs Manager, explained it to me when I met him at the Gas Company’s Playa del Rey station at the headwaters of the 105 West. Planes from LAX roared overhead as he walked me through the company’s native garden.
The Playa del Rey station is one of four active storage fields operated by SoCal Gas – others are in Goleta, Northridge and Valencia. Originally an oil field that produced in the 1930s, the land was converted to natural gas storage in the ‘40s after most of the oil played out and the federal government needed a place to keep a dependable source of energy during World War II. The gas is stored over 6,000 feet below ground in a porous sandstone formation that is sealed in by 1,500 feet of shale. Purchased from the Pacific Lighting company, which owned the field since the 1950s, SoCal Gas has operated its 54 active wells for over 60 years now.
Gordon saw it as the perfect place to start the company’s green revolution.
The Gas Company operates 111 facilities in California. The Playa del Rey station is one of the biggest, and its lawn was the most water- and electricity-intensive landscape the company owned.
After Gordon secured the right to transform the company’s facilities into lean, green machines, he ranked them all by their associated costs and consumption. This one stood out.
“This site was a good target because there isn’t a bigger landscape that I could do than this,” he said. “If I had the confidence to do this, to pull this off, everything else would be – I don’t want to say easy, but feasible.”
The entire process took two months. Over 78 tons of plant waste was hauled away and composted. In the new sandy soil workers planted elderberries and white sage, Lemonade Berry, succulents, Hollyleaf Cherry, Prickly Pear Cactus, Laurel sumac, coast live oaks and non-native agave.
Gordon brought in a landscape architect to make sure the plants could survive the exceptional drought conditions that are becoming increasingly familiar to Californians.
“God forbid if the drought got so bad that they had to turn the water off – if there was a moratorium on watering – but a lot of these plants would still survive,” said Gordon.
It’s a distinct possibility. As the drought has worsened, Governor Jerry Brown has endorsed mandatory water restrictions on both lawns and washing cars. Many of California’s smaller communities have been forced to let their lawns die in order to have enough water to drink and bathe with.
“You can go up in the Santa Monica Mountains any day of the week and you can see that it’s actually pretty green up there,” said Gordon, “despite the fact that they haven’t had any rain. The same applies here. We’re near the beach, there’s a lot of cooling fog that comes in, it’s cooler here than it is in an inland area, and these plants will survive without water. Obviously there’s going to be mortality on some.”
He grins. “Just think if there was nothing but grass here.”
Things have changed in the last two years. The confluence of the drought and the growing awareness of global warming gradually transformed Gordon from the company’s lone environmental nut into one of its most visibly green advocate.
Gordon’s plans for the company’s environmental policy were seen as potentially radical, and he spent six months convincing his boss and his “boss’s boss” that they needed to stop thinking about a return on investment on water conservation.
“When we put our [original] landscaping in at all of our sites, did we do a return on investment analysis at that time?” he asked. “Absolutely not. No! Nobody does that.”
When the plan to xeriscape Playa del Rey finally got the greenlight, Gordon said water utilities were flabbergasted that SoCal was doing this willingly. No one had done this before – not at their level.
Most commercial building planners will leave space for grass because they want the area to look appealing to the outside. A lush, well-manicured lawn has always translated to healthy, thriving businesses – despite native climate or ecosystems. This is despite the fact, Gordon says, that water agencies offer a rebate to companies that convert their lawns to native landscapes at $3 per square foot.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has actually exhibited SoCal’s Playa del Rey xeriscape in their newsletter as an example of what can be achieved in this area. The facility’s four acres – and an additional acre on a separate hill that Gordon says will be xeriscaped in phase two – could potentially be worth $125,000 in rebates.
Gordon says the xeriscape has gotten an overwhelmingly positive reception from both the public and the Gas Company. That initial success has given him more leeway to pursue xeriscaping projects at other facilities, as well as continue solar installations across the board.
In 2012, he oversaw the installation of 1,000 solar panels on the roof of the utility’s headquarters in Redlands. The site uses about 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year and the panels, all manufactured in the U.S., have reduced the cost by about a third. When the sun is at its peak, the panels can generate about 50 percent of the facility’s daily power.
To Gordon, the opportunity to transform Playa del Rey was as much about conserving as “doing something I can feel good about.”
“Nature’s given to us every day,” he said, “in abundance, and it’s important for us to give a little something back. It’s a quid pro quo.”
The most important thing, he said, was that SoCal was willing to make these changes without waiting for the government to mandate them. And their enthusiasm for energy efficiency projects has grown as they distinguish themselves as green pioneers in their industry.
The issue is not just water, he said, it’s about mindset. “It’s not waiting for a return on investment calculation to meet the cut,” he said. “We’ll all be dead by that time because water is basically free. I mean, water is so damn cheap.
“We – meaning corporate America, and utilities especially – need to be integrating our operations in harmony with the laws of nature. In every way: By reducing emissions, reducing our carbon footprint. The sooner that corporate America figures out how to interact and integrate their business and operations within the laws of nature, within the limits of nature, the better off we’re all gonna be.”
Gordon indicated the Playa del Rey garden with a wave of his hand. “And this is just part of that. Returning this property back to its native landscape benefits biodiversity, it benefits the neighbors, it improves the air quality, it reduces the stress on resources. And even if you don’t believe in global warming, just look at it from a resource perspective, look at the Earth as a pie. We all have a certain amount of air and water, and there’s more and more people, so it’s really important for us to figure out how to do more with less.”