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Bakersfield trees bouncing back after years of drought

dead trees (copy)

Bakersfield’s historic coastal redwoods died at a much higher rate than other local trees during California's recent drought. Darin Budak, assistant director of the Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Department, said the redwoods constituted a “large majority” of trees that died.

It didn’t look good for Bakersfield trees two years ago. The drought and state-mandated water restrictions took a hit on the city's ecosystem, forcing the removal of a significant portion of dead trees from city property.

But since the abatement of the drought in 2017, the city is seeing the number of trees dying off each year dwindle, and a new effort by the Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Department is attempting to return affected areas back to their green glory days.

“It might take a tree up to two, maybe three years for it to reach a point where we say OK, we have to give up on this tree,” said Darin Budak, assistant director of the Recreation and Parks Department. “So we’re losing those, but nowhere near the numbers we were 12 to 18 months ago. We’re definitely on the increase.”

A total of 1,666 dead trees were lost in 2015, during a time when the city was forced to reduce its water use by 32 percent. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 trees have died and been removed by the city since then.

With an estimated tree population of 80,000 to 100,000, the death of roughly 3 percent of the city’s trees may not have been a catastrophic failure, but it was troubling.

“If you look at the whole city that has trees, it's a small percentage, but it is a lot (of trees),” said Recreation and Parks Director Dianne Hoover.

After a $750,000 commitment over two years from the Bakersfield City Council to replenish the lost trees, the Recreation and Parks Department undertook a project to bring back greenery to areas all over Bakersfield.

The city has planted 1,600 trees so far this year, with a plan to plant an additional 800 in the fall.

“If we lost a tree, we’re coming back with a tree,” Budak said.

The new trees will not necessarily be the same species as those that died off. One casualty of the drought is Bakersfield’s historic coastal redwoods, which died at a much higher rate than other local trees during the drought years.

Budak said the redwoods constituted a “large majority” of trees that died during the drought years.

Coastal redwoods depend on moisture from tule fog to survive in Bakersfield. Over the past 10 years, tule fog has decreased, Hoover said, owing in part to development outward, into the previously uninhabited areas. The redwoods, which absorb moisture from the fog through their leaves, have not been receiving as much sustenance as they used to, and as a result, have been perishing throughout the city.

The drought and subsequent water restrictions didn’t help any.

“I have some in my backyard,” Budak said of the redwoods. “I managed to save five of the original 12 so I guess I’m pretty consistent with the rest of the city.”

Areas managed by Kern County Parks and Recreation, which do not contain redwoods, did not see drastic effects of the drought.

Division Manager Larry Swan said the county lost about 140 trees so far this year, and not all of those losses can be attributed to the drought.

“Which isn’t too bad of a number,” he said. “It’s looking pretty good. We’re not on restricted watering, except in some of the outlying cities, so our trees seem to be doing pretty well.”

The city seems to have taken note.

No new redwoods will be planted in Bakersfield. Because of the redwoods’ susceptibility to drought, the Bakersfield Recreaction and Parks Department has initiated a plan to replace lost trees with drought-resistant species, including deodar cedar, Canary Island Pine, Chinese pistache and crepe myrtle.

“We’ve used a lot of these other trees already, but we’ve just increased the use of them because they’ve proven to stand up even in the toughest of times,” Budak said.

So far the results have been encouraging.

“We’re definitely setting it up for success in the future,” he said.

The calls for tree removal are still coming in daily, and some parts of the city still need to be replanted, but the Recreation and Parks Department believes the future looks green for trees in Bakersfield.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415.

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