Only God Can Water a Tree . . .

(File photo of Africa, not El Toro.
El Toro? Not so many antelopes.)If I had a water truck, I'd water in the morning. I'd water in the evening, all over this land. And I'd start with the trees out at the former El Toro Marine Base, which only get watered when it rains.

So, assuming I had a water truck—and who's to say I don't? You?—I asked the Department of the Navy's El Toro spokesman, Lee Saunders, how easy it would be for a concerned citizen like me, with a Class B driver's license and an irrigation system on wheels, to roll onto the base and irrigate the thousands of trees.

It'd be cheap for the Navy, I told Saunders; I'd pay for it myself. I'm rich and stuff.

“Again, the Navy is responsible as the caretaker for the base,” Saunders told me, several times. “Mature trees do not need watering. They get water from nature, from the rain, from the water table [underground].

“There's no need to bring a truck to water the facility. What I'm saying is the trees do not need any water. And we're not aware of many trees dying. Over the past five years, we're not aware of any problems.”

Professional arborist Tom Larson, a sometime consultant for the city of Irvine, agrees. He says the Navy kept on pruning the trees at El Toro, which include lush, mature oaks, pines and palms even after the base closed—and that they don't need regular watering.

“I wouldn't call it a drop in maintenance. There is a maintenance program in place out there,” Larson said. “A lot of those trees have naturalized; they've adapted to the existing site conditions over the years—and naturally, because they're so large and have basically adapted quite well,” they don't need water.

Some, he conceded, may have died; and through benign neglect, if that's what you want to call it, he guessed that some of the eucalyptus trees at El Toro may have become infested with the larp psyllid, a sap-sucking insect that starves them to death.

But, Larson said, “I don't have any insight [into that]. No one does.”

Irvine city officials say they do. They are sticking to their initial story, which is that at least 50 mature trees may have died from lack of water since the base closed in June 1999—trees that would have looked fabulous in the Great Park they're planning to build on the site.

That's what Mayor Larry Agran said at the January Great Park Corp. board meeting, and the fear now is that number of expired trees may be far higher.

At the February Great Park Corp. board meeting, director Richard Sim said the total number of trees on the base—initially thought to be fewer than 5,000—is probably around 22,000 trees, a number city officials arrived at after examining aerial photographs. More live trees could mean more dead trees.

“We had a lot of rain recently,” Sim said, looking on the bright side. “So that ought to help quite a bit.”

But Agran, speaking after the meeting, disagreed.

“That's a drop in the bucket. That was just an inch of rain,” he said, dismissing the Navy's claims the trees will be fine. “Frankly, I'm much more interested in hearing what a professional arborist has to say than hearing a seat-of-the-pants analysis from someone at the Department of the Navy.”

And so at its February meeting, the Great Park Corp. board okayed spending up to $50,000 to hire a professional arborist who will catalog the trees using global-positioning computer software.

Which leaves us where we were this time last month: the tree survey won't be done for a month at least, and meanwhile, there's still no one watering the trees. Except God. Only God, apparently, can water a tree.

It didn't take me long to find one arborist who agreed with Him.

“Tell 'em to look up at Arrowhead and Big Bear. Those trees are dying 'cause they didn't get enough water. If you want to keep 'em healthy, you've got to water them,” said Chuck Ross of Midway City's Dynamite Stump Grinding, which, ironically enough, sees trees during the last stages of their lives. Ross, though, says he's got plenty of mature trees at his house, which is on a big lot way out in Riverside.

And if watering the trees with tap water or Evian or whatever is too expensive, Ross offers this suggestion:

“Water them with reclaimed water,” he said. “They don't need fresh water.”

From his lips to the Navy's ear . . .

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