Beyond gravel: designing water
Becoming better stewards of Creation by killing off your church lawn? It sounds odd, but it is exactly what the Community United Church of Christ (UCC) in Fresno, USA, did. Facing increasing drought and water scarcity in their home state California, the congregation embarked on a project to drastically reduce their water use. Thanks to the massive support of volunteers, an entirely new, water-wise landscape was created that offers a lot to discover.
The church grounds of the Community United Church of Christ in Fresno, USA, demonstrate how water conservation efforts and beautiful landscaping can go hand in hand.
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At a workshop of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network at the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe last year, Rev. Diane Christopherson from the US, caught people's attention when she mentioned a "xeriscaping" project at a congregation she had once served at as interim minister. Most workshop participants had no idea what she was talking about!
California has long been making headlines for its severe droughts and water scarcity, the result of both climate change and excessive water use. Back in 2014, facing the third consecutive year of a major drought and a statewide drought emergency declaration, Community UCC decided to act.
"We had a very water-intensive, all-grass landscaping back then that didn't serve any purpose," explains Maggie Dutton, a water professional and member of the congregation who spearheaded the water conversation project.
The congregation chose to xeriscape the church grounds and replace the grass with a more climate-appropriate and water-efficient landscape. Xeriscaping is the process of landscaping, or gardening, that reduces the need for irrigation. "For us, it was a way of fulfilling our mission of being faithful stewards of God's gift of water," Maggie Dutton adds.
The first step was to remove about 2,000 square meters of grass lawn surrounding the church building. The congregation wanted to implement the project using environmentally responsible techniques, that is, without using herbicides. This led to two non-chemical grass-removal processes called solarization and sheet mulching.
Both techniques required substantial volunteer labour. First, the entire lawn was solarized by covering it with plastic sheeting to dry up any lawn or weeds under the sun's rays. After solarization, a biodegradable weed barrier made up of cardboard and newspaper was laid out and then covered by mulch, which was donated by local tree removal companies.
Volunteers from the congregation, sister congregations, and members of the public enthusiastically supported the project, participating in volunteer work days and collecting materials. "At one point, a whole room in our church building was filled floor to ceiling with cardboard," remembers Maggie and laughs.
The mulch provided a natural and locally-sourced ground cover requiring zero water and effectively suppressed the reemergence of the grass. Drip irrigation was installed under the mulch to provide localized watering for existing mature trees and new drought-tolerant plants.
Step-by-step, an entirely new landscape took shape. Decorative boulders and plants able to withstand hot and dry conditions were placed for texture and colour. A beautiful dry riverbed laid out with boulders and rocks became a new highlight right in front of the church entrance.
"We are very proud of our low water usage," shared Nancy Pressley, the congregation's Finance Team chair. "And we are so pleased to note a huge increase in our bee population," she adds.
The final result is not simply a much lower water bill; money saved that can instead be used for capital projects or to fund community missions. The result is also a proud congregation and a micro-ecosystem that mirrors the local climate, supports local wildlife, encourages bees and butterflies, provides nutrients to soil, and allows mature trees to thrive.
Since the initial project, the congregation has continued to expand and improve its xeriscape to increase water conservation, add more drought tolerant plants, and make its natural weed maintenance control more robust.
Community UCC continues to set a positive example in Fresno for implementing permanent water-conserving practices and committing to protect California's scarce groundwater resources.