Planting Trees During A Drought

San Antonio City Forester Michael Nentwich concedes not everyone thought the 2010 massive campaign to plant 9,000 trees in San Antonio parks was a great idea, given the ongoing challenge of South Texas’ earth-baking droughts.

Volunteers plant one of the 9,000 trees that have been added to the San Antonio, Texas, parks since 2010. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

Two years and a historic, extended drought later, the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department is happy to report an 83-percent survival rate for trees planted in city-owned parks during the first year of the campaign. The second year proved to be tougher, but the stats are still within the acceptable range.

This success, according to Nentwich, can be attributed to watering strategies that not only nourished the trees, but conserved water.

“We knew we faced challenges with this important effort to increase our tree canopy and that it would take a lot of effort to ensure success,” Nentwich says.

“We also knew that if we waited for an ideal time to plant, it would never come. We were prepared with a watering plan to maximize the survival rate while remaining cognizant of the critical importance of water conservation.”

For those who felt water should not be used on new trees during a drought, Nentwich is quick to point out that the amount of water over a three-year period needed to establish a number-15 size tree—commonly known as a 15-gallon tree—is approximately the same as an average San Antonio household uses in 4.5 to 6 days.

The amount of water used to care for a 15-gallon tree is about 1,500 to 2,000 gallons over a 3-year period. In comparison, the average household uses about 10,000 gallons of water per month or 120,000 gallons per year.

“The benefits of planting trees in terms of reducing storm-water runoff; increasing the recharge of our sole source of drinking water, the Edwards Aquifer; providing clean air and cooler temperatures; and increasing commerce far outweigh the usage needed to water the trees,” Nentwich says.

“Since trees are such a valuable part of our community, it makes sense to replace those we are losing due to drought.”

A Texas Forest Service (TFS) report released in February estimates 5.6-million trees were lost across Texas as a result of the 2011 drought. TFS estimates it will cost $560 million to remove those trees, many of which pose safety issues. The estimated loss of economic and environmental benefits provided by the trees is $280 million per year.

And it’s not just Texas. The National Climatic Data Center reported in July that 55 percent of the continental United States was in moderate to extreme drought.

Tapping Into Water Sources

Those figures make planting and maintaining new trees critical to urban areas, says Nentwich. Under his direction, staff members worked hard to help every new tree survive, while making sure every drop of water used was effective and efficient.

Water conservation efforts played a big role in the tree-planting initiative. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

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