How Green Was My Valley?

by Alain Pinel
General Manager of Intero Prestigio international

Did you see the movie? A big hit from 1941, signed John Ford. Beautiful drama. Another drama, unfolding now in sunny California, could use the same title. The green valleys and lush lawns from years past are not so green anymore. They are turning yellow, if not brown. The sun has a lot to do with this. The lack of water even more.

Every year is somewhat of a gamble around here. Will it rain enough to fill the reservoirs and produce lots of snow in the Sierra? If yes, we’ve got another year to turn the faucets and the sprinklers as we wish to enjoy grass, plants & flowers. If not, well, we’ve got to deal with the drought, somehow.

We had one of those years in 2014, and so far, this year, the picture is pretty bleak. How bleak? Well, California is about to begin its 4th consecutive summer of drought. Winter 2015 turned out to be the driest on record, ever. Many areas have not seen any rainfall to speak of in months and the snowpack water content, measured on April 1st, was at only 5% of average: 1.4 inches instead of 28. That’s how bleak it is.

State, counties and towns are on alert. Tough mandatory restrictions on water use and voluntary cutback programs are being implemented. In some communities, the hunt for violators has begun. In some others, Local or State officials are leaving it up to water companies to play cops and require at least 25% conservation measures in potable urban water. Significant rate hikes are spreading (but don’t represent much of a deterrent in the multi-million dollar price range).

Californians are taking the instructions and the orders seriously…. Well, more or less. Depends who; depends where. You can drive one block and see nothing but brown front yards, and a block further you see healthy green grass. Some people did not get the memo. My own backyard lawn looks badly neglected, and most of the flowers are gone. Redwood bark and synthetic turf have never been more popular, in residential as well as commercial properties. We may have to get used to this new picture.

The question now trotting fast in people’s mind is: what effect will this have on property values? In the land of plenty, in Northern California and Southern California, the question has not been answered yet. The concern is especially vibrant in the priciest zip codes where luxury estates stretching on one acre or more and looking gorgeous thanks in part to beautiful lawns and flowerbeds, will likely look a lot less colorful the balance of the year.

Frankly, I do not believe that, in the short term, the effects of the drought on the usually manicured landscaping of high-end properties will have a measurable impact on home prices or, for that matter, on the number of sales. It is not as if some regions or towns were spared from this calamity; the whole State is concerned. All properties are affected the same way. So, unless some out-of-State buyers decide to skip California for the sake of playing in grass, it will take a lot more than that to stop or even slow the real estate activity.

Long term, say 2 years from now and moving forward, it’s a different story. People in Sacramento better understand the meaning of urgency. Lots of talks about alternative solutions, but not much to show for it. Seems to me that it’s about time, among several options, that we get serious about using sea water in a big way.  Some say that it would be too expensive. No kidding. The cost is always a concern but it is not the main problem here, the main problem is…. Water!

Meanwhile, what can and probably will change, is the way homeowners landscape their properties going forward. No choice in the matter. I can see a lot more “desert landscaping” in the California future. Why not? It can be beautiful actually. If you like Arizona, you will love California. No more thirsty plants. No more expansive lawns. Elegant frugality may become the new normal in the backyard.

There are many other ways to decorate a yard and leverage space without sacrificing beauty or even functionality. I bet a lot of homeowners are going to build bigger but shallow swimming pools to bring color and use up a good fraction of the rear property. Others may decide to put a tennis court. Bocce ball or petanque pads are pretty popular too these days. Your call, depending on your taste, your needs & your means. Think about it quickly though, the “rainy season” is still more than six months away, and, if the past 4 years are any indication, it is not very dependable.

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