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A giant responsibility: hand-watering palm trees during drought

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (April 11, 2016) — He rises in the dark.

Oscar Jimenez loads a wheelbarrow and garden hose into his pickup and drives to the ring road circling Fashion Island retail center in Newport Beach.

Every third Thursday, the barrel-chested man pushes his wheelbarrow along Newport Center Drive, gazing up at the stately giants he cares for: 129 Washingtonia robusta palm trees that rise from the medians.

At each one, he stops, connects the hose to an in-ground water line, and fills a small reservoir around the trunk. As it fills, Jimenez looks 80 feet above to inspect its palm leaves, petioles (frond stems) and inflorescence (flower stalks).

“I have affection for these trees,” he says, adjusting the hose nozzle to a gentle spray. “Once you look after something, you care about it—like a pet. You don’t want to see it get hurt or die. You want to save it.”

For more than 30 years, irrigation sprinklers kept these palms alive. Then came one of the worst droughts in California history. In April, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown restricted state water usage and forbade cities from irrigating median grass with potable water.

The sprinklers were shut off. As a result, much of the grass on these city-owned medians turned brown and died. But the Washingtonia robustas?

Well, they’re doing just fine, thanks to Oscar Jimenez.


Sycamore trees once shaded the medians of Newport Center.

The city planted them when Fashion Island opened in 1967 and continued to maintain them. But the trees, prone to disease, required much water and attention. And each fall, after dropping their leaves, they stood barren until spring.

So in the early 1980s, Irvine Company offered to replace them with Washingtonia robusta palm trees—and to care for them as well.

The city agreed. And since then, the slender palms have lent a Mediterranean air to the coastal shopping experience of Fashion Island and to the Newport Center office buildings across the street.

Last year, when the sprinklers were turned off, Irvine Company offered to keep the 129 robustas alive by hiring someone to water them—by hand. Jimenez started by watering each tree for about 10 minutes. When he used a soil probe to test the water penetration, however, he found that it only seeped down about 18 inches—not enough to satisfy the palms’ roots.

Now he waters each tree twice, several hours apart, by completing his route twice. That allows the water to seep down about three feet.

“He’s a conscientious worker,” says his boss, Jose Molina, a supervisor with Wm. Vandergeest Landscape Care, Inc. “He makes sure every tree gets enough water. And he’s always looking for yellowing leaves, or cracks in the trunk or too many seed pods—things that need attention.”

Molina estimates that hand-watering the palms requires only 20 percent of the water formerly used to irrigate the medians.

Clint Collins, Irvine Company’s senior director of landscape operations for its office division, says the investment in hand-watering is worth it.

“As responsible stewards of our environment, we feel it is extremely important to provide hand watering of these beautiful, signature palm trees in the Newport Center medians,” he says.

Outside, Jimenez waters his last palm of the day and wraps the hose.

“Some might think it’s boring,” he says, “but every time I see those leaves against the sky, it makes me smile.”

As usual, he’s looking up.

And so are the 129 hand-watered Washingtonia robusta palm trees circling Fashion Island.