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California Cemeteries Eradicate Grass to Combat Drought

The seemingly perpetual California drought has led several cemeteries in Los Angeles County to begin implementing drought-busting measures to ensure their grounds remain fertile and attractive.

Savannah Memorial Park in Rosemead, California, the oldest non-catholic cemetery in the state and a California historical landmark, is in the early stages of a conservation project which includes cutting back the amount of grass on its property and the amount of water it uses.

Where their land usage was previously made up of only grass, now bark and mulch is being distributed under all trees in the park and walking paths made of decomposed granite are being installed.

"We plan on having a demonstration drought-tolerant garden with a dry creek stream, hoping that if and when the rain comes, we can capture the water and have it seep into our own underground water table for future use, as well as drought tolerant trees and plants," said Joanne Russell-Chavez, the park's president.

In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency and called for a reduction in water use by 20 percent. Los Angeles County is asking for as much as a 30 percent decrease. However, Savannah's conservation project actually began well in advance of the water restrictions due to other circumstances.

In August 2013, the brass and copper from their sprinkler system was stolen. Without access to their primary water supply, they began preparing for worsening drought conditions much earlier.

While the city of Rosemead helped to rebuild the sprinkler system, the park still is not using any of the water. Once they do turn the water back on, which is coordinated with the project's intended completion in spring 2015, they hope to reduce the amount of water they use by 60 percent, according to Russell-Chavez.

In addition to helping to replace the sprinkler system, the city also donated 25 trees for the 4.5-acre park, which is a key part of the landscaping effort. The trees will provide shade to help keep the remaining grass from drying out, as well as decreasing the overall temperature in the park.

Savannah is not alone in efforts to combat the drought and follow the stringent water restrictions. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, the largest cemetery in North America, is transitioning from using fresh water to recycled water only, with a completion for the transition set for 2015. The cemetery also has drought-resistant grass.

By using recycled water, which is free from restrictions on usage, the cemetery gains additional flexibility and isn't as affected by irrigation restrictions that limit watering to three days a week, the paper reports.

At Savannah, Russell-Chavez said while they continue to maintain headstones, the burial sites have not been affected and they haven't received any complaints from families. She said the only complaints they have received is due to the lack of green grass on the property.

As a nonprofit organization, they have no endowment or perpetual care so all of the money they use to run the cemetery comes from fundraising. In order to keep moving forward with this endeavor, they will need continued donations and volunteers, but Russell-Chavez said that hasn't been a problem so far.

"We look forward to the end result because we know that at least here in Southern California, nobody else is doing this, so we're creating a footprint," Russell-Chavez said. "We're creating a footprint in many different areas, and it's going to be really beautiful when it's done."