There are a lot of colors at the Arroyo Grande Cemetery on El Camino Real.
White marble headstones mark the graves of close to 15,000 former city residents. A rainbow of pink, yellow and orange flowers rests on many of the graves. Red, white and blue American flags dot the entire site, waving in the wind.
One color that is notably absent is green.
With a historic drought in its fourth year, brown grass now dominates the once-green plots at the Arroyo Grande cemetery — something cemetery manager Michael Marsalek couldn’t be happier about.
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“The new thinking is that we can’t have green grass,” Marsalek said as he sat in the cemetery’s main office Thursday, next to a plaque from the city congratulating the cemetery on reducing its water use by 49 percent.
“We cut back on watering when we first realized that the drought was going on a couple of years ago. ... Then after Memorial Day this year, we shut the water off entirely.”
In 2013, the cemetery used about 29 acre-feet of water a year — approximately 9.45 million gallons — to keep the grass green at the 21-acre site at 895 El Camino Real, said Geoff English, the city’s public works director.
That year, the public works department approached the cemetery about taking part in a new retrofit program to encourage water conservation among the city’s biggest water users.
“The city of Arroyo Grande has been aggressive on water conservation for a number of years,” English said. “So we established this program to fix that large-scale water consumption for those big users and really encourage some large conservation. The cemetery was one of the first groups we approached.”
Through the retrofit program, the cemetery upgraded its sprinkler system to a more efficient system and reduced its water use by approximately 4.4 million gallons in 2014 — less than half its previous use.
But that still wasn’t enough for cemetery management.
In June of this year, the cemetery’s board of trustees made the decision to stop all irrigation. Now, the cemetery only uses water to soften the ground before digging a grave, Marsalek said.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said, noting that besides drought concerns, the rising cost of water has also played a role in why the cemetery decided to stop irrigating the grass. “If you use water up on the grounds, there’s less water to drink, to shower and to use. It’s just practical.”
On April 28, the cemetery district was recognized as a “Water Conservation Champion” by Mayor Jim Hill and the City Council for its conservation efforts. It was the first recipient of a mayor’s commendation for water conservation in the city’s history.
“The cemetery cut their water usage by well over half, even before the city declared a Stage 1 emergency and even though they are technically not required to do so,” Hill said Thursday. “This was a great unilateral and proactive effort by the cemetery in recognition of the extraordinary drought conditions we are faced with and their desire to be good neighbors.”
Other than the occasional visitor from out of the state, Marsalek said so far he hasn’t heard any complaints about the cemetery’s grass.
“Not very many people have complained, believe it or not, because plenty of people have seen the news,” he said. “They know their city council members have dry lawns, and their neighborhoods have dry lawns, there’s no water in lakes and after this summer there might not be any water at all. I think most people are pretty good about knowing what the situation is.”
Marsalek said, going forward, he is not sure if the cemetery will ever return to the state it once was.
“We’re probably in global warming,” he said. “If that’s the case, maybe our whole rain is going to be different. So I really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’ll leave that up to the scientists.”