Case Study

Water Quality

Palo Alto, CA: Water, Drought, People and Urban Forests


During a drought, homeowners play critical role in keeping trees alive … and working!

Even in severe drought conditions, trees are worth the water they drink.

Palo Alto, California



Metro: 42% White, 6% Black; 23% Latino; 23% Asian

City: 61% White; 2% Black; 6% Latino; 27% Asian

Below Poverty Line: 5.4% Individuals

Named for El Palo Alto (“the tall tree”) Palo Alto benefits from a robust urban forest with 37% canopy cover for the city. The region recognizes the value of their urban forest for the ecosystem services it provides, including energy savings, carbon sequestration, pollution removal, and stormwater management. However, the recent drought has led to a tension between the water used by trees, and strict water conservation measures enacted in the city.

The city has launched a multi-faceted campaign to “Save our Water and our Trees” which emphasizes the value of trees for their long-term benefits. The city is transitioning their urban forest plan to more drought resistant species and species that can tolerate gray water. There are also subsidies available to homeowners to make the same transition. Even under strict drought restrictions, the city is encouraging efficient watering of trees because a “well managed urban forest saves more water than it consumes.”

  • City of Palo Alto
  • Canopy
  • California Releaf
  • Cal Fire
  • Coping with long-term drought and other severe conditions requires extensive partnerships
  • Work to save existing trees, then plant new drought-resistant species

Lead partners include:

  • Canopy
  • Cal Fire
  • California ReLeaf
  • Save Our Water
  • City of Palo Alto
Lessons Learned
  • Even in a drought, it pays to irrigate existing trees because of their ability to capture and return water to the atmosphere and aquifers.
  • Homeowners can be mobilized as working partners in comprehensive tree conservation initiatives.
  • Sustaining a campaign requires careful cultivation of partners, ongoing communication.
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