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Government & Politics

Will The Drought Kill Fresno's Historic Trees?

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Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
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A truck waters some trees on Huntington Boulevard

California’s four year drought has taken its toll on many trees in the valley, and now some are concerned it could also kill iconic trees that line Fresno’s boulevards. But is the city doing anything to keep the trees from succumbing to the harsh conditions?

"what a tragedy it would be to lose one or all of those trees because of this lack of watering," Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea

If you drive down some of Fresno’s historic boulevards, such as Van Ness and Huntington, you will be cruising in the shade of tall trees.

But you can also see the stress that the drought has put on them in their brown leaves and dead branches.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea posted pictures online of some of trees that appear to be dying and is voicing concern that the city could lose the trees.

“You’re talking about historic trees that 60, 70, 80 years ago they were planted. And what a tragedy it would be to lose one or all of those trees because of this lack of watering,” Perea said.

Earlier this year, the state ordered sprinklers that water grass in street medians to be turned off.

But there is one problem with that. The sprinklers that watered the grass also watered the trees on Van Ness.

These trees are a big part of the identity of the quaint community.

Amanda Oakley walks her young daughter in a stroller down the shaded sidewalks along Van Ness Boulevard.

She says several trees died in her own yard and she worries that losing the trees means losing a vital neighborhood asset.

“Because they are so big, old and beautiful and they give us a lot of shade that we need. It is kind of an old, historic neighborhood and it kind of goes with the neighborhood,” Oakley said.

Despite the state’s order to stop irrigating grass on medians, Eric Oppenheimer with the State Water Board says the rule does not mean the trees have to die. 

"I dread when some people just ignore it. Because it increases the value of your house. It makes us feel better about our community. It reduces crime. It goes on and on of the value of the urban landscape," Jon Reelhorn

“It only applies to turf. It does not apply to trees. In fact we want to see trees continue to be watered. We don’t want to see trees dying for certain,” Oppenheimer said. 

According to the rule, if a city has recycled water, it is free to water the turf in medians.

Fresno does not have recycled water running through its irrigation system, but city spokesperson Mark Standriff says they have found a way around that problem.

“So what is the solution? Well we have got a reclaimed water facility off of Jensen. We started getting trucks set up so we draw the water and hand truck it. Hand water it out at places like Van Ness and Huntington. And also at Roeding and Woodward park where we know we have trees that need a significant amount of water,” Standriff said.

The trucks travel the boulevards three times each week. They vary how they water the trees, rotating from hosing the trunks to spraying the ground around the trees to soak the roots.

But are the trees actually dying?

Jon Reelhorn, the owner of Belmont Nursery, says the trees are stressed and look like they are in trouble but they are not dying.

“But for a year when there is not much water, these trees are doing OK. So you’d think that in the years they are doing well they would be thriving. And then in the years we have drought conditions, they should be able to tolerate it. If we put the right tree in the rights spot they should be able to tolerate it,” Reelhorn said.

"Because they are so big, old and beautiful and they give us a lot of shade that we need," Van Ness resident Amanda Oakley

Different trees handle the drought differently, Reelhorn says, with native species faring better.

He echoes the sentiment of many others that the trees are a valuable asset representing decades of investment and that they should be protected whether they are on city or private property.

“I dread when some people just ignore it. Because it increases the value of your house. It makes us feel better about our community. It reduces crime. It goes on and on of the value of the urban landscape,” Reelhorn said.

Reelhorn does point out that watering from a truck is not ideal, saying a slow soak from drip irrigation would be better at keeping the trees healthy.

The city of Fresno has hired an arborist to monitor the trees and make recommendations about how to keep them alive should the drought continue.