Rocks and small boulders are both aesthetically pleasing and useful in your landscape. Photo: Otay Water District

Contour Your Landscape

When planning your landscape, look first at the terrain you’re working with. You can use the contours of your existing land – depressions and slopes – for guidance when planning your landscape grading. If your yard is flat, you’ll need to move soil and features around to create more rain-holding contour areas.

A soil percolation test can be very helpful in preparing your soil. You want to make it as much of a water-retaining sponge as possible before getting to work on rainwater capture plans.

NOTE: If you have existing hillsides, it’s best to get professional advice before grading or other significant changes. Before any digging, call Dig Alert 8-1-1 or visit to be sure you won’t hit any underground utility lines.

Move water with gravity

Basins and swales are shallow depressions or channels no more than 24 inches deep on gently sloped or nearly flat landscapes. Basins and swales move water over short distances. With these contours, gravity will move water around to where you want it.

Small, shallow depressions work best in clay soil areas, while sandy soils may accommodate deeper depressions up to two feet. Channels can be planted or lined with rocks and small boulders to resemble natural creek beds.

Use rainwater to your advantage

By planning your landscape so that you don’t have low spots with no plants, you prevent wasting rainwater through runoff. You can also avoid fungus and rot from standing water. Plants in and around the depressions capture and sink small volumes of surface water so that all the rainwater you capture can be used.

Berms are mounds of raised soil, usually planted, that can border basins and swales or be used alone. They help contain and move water around, increasing the holding capacity of basins and swales.

Boulders can add points of interest and slow down water runoff in your landscaping. Boulders also are useful to retain small berms or the edges of swales.

The San Diego County Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at

The Nieves family of Bonita are the winners of the Sweetwater Authority's 2019 Landscape Makeover Contest for theier creative WaterSmart landscaping design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority Creative WaterSmart Landscaping

Creative WaterSmart Landscaping Wins Sweetwater Authority’s 2019 Landscape Contest

Bonita residents Efren and Ily Niervas won the Sweetwater Authority 2019 Landscape Contest after transforming their front yard from a traditional thirsty expanse of lawn to a WaterSmart landscaping approach.

When the Niervas moved to their home in 2017, they realized the cost of watering their yard, with a large lawn and assorted shrubbery, was too high. They decided to change their landscape and attended home improvement events and expos as part of their research. They also did online research. The research paid off, as the Niervas thoughtfully designed their own xeriscape plan for their creative watersmart landscaping.

Creative hardscapes and colorful plant palette transform landscaping

Before: The Nieves' landscaping prior to undertaking their award-winning, watersmart redesign project. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Before: The Niervas’ landscaping prior to undertaking their award-winning, watersmart redesign project. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

With the design in hand, the Niervas began work on making the landscape transformation themselves. They purchased plants on sale, and collected small cuttings and succulents from friends and neighbors.

Knowing the soil in the yard was dry and hard, they patiently waited for wetter and softer conditions in the fall months to begin working on their yard. The landscape transformation was finally complete in March 2019. The Niervas are thrilled with the beautiful, water-saving results.

After: The stunning results of the landscaping transformation. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

After: The stunning results of the landscape transformation. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Creative watersmart landscaping

The yard design features swales in the form of rock-lined dry creek beds, which capture rainwater from roofs, driveways, and other hard surfaces to slow it down, spread it out, and allow the water to sink into the soil. Lighted flagstone pathways wind through the yard.

The design features a diverse palette of succulents, cacti, and California native plants. The Niervas completed their yard décor with beautiful ceramic containers, gazing balls, and whimsical artwork including starfish and a peacock.

The homeowners completed their yard décor with beautiful ceramic containers, gazing balls, and whimsical artwork including starfish and a peacock. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

San Diego County homeowners can take advantage of free landscaping makeover classes offered by the San Diego County Water Authority to help plan to create a colorful and watersmart landscape. Go tot the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program

A diverse palette of colorful succulents, cacti, and California native plants add to the winning design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

A diverse palette of colorful succulents, cacti, and California native plants add to the winning design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

READ MORE: Winning Vista Irrigation District WaterSmart Landscape Reduces Water Use

Top 10 Tips for Saving Water This Summer

Top 10 Tips for Saving Water This Summer

The start of summer brings the hottest, driest months of the year in San Diego County and a good time to remind residents of the Top 10 tips for using water more efficiently.

Top 10 tips to use water more efficiently

Check it out. Inspect irrigation equipment to eliminate overspray. Monitor soil moisture using a spade or soil probe, and only water if the top inch of soil is dry. Irrigate turf if it doesn’t spring back when stepped on. Better yet, upgrade to a “smart” irrigation controller that automatically adjusts water times based on weather conditions. Rebates for a variety of irrigation equipment are at

Let it sink in. Irrigate mature trees once or twice a month using a soaker hose or drip system toward the edge of the tree canopy – not at the base of the tree. Use a hose faucet timer (found at hardware stores) to prevent overwatering. Young trees need more frequent irrigation; consult an arborist or tree-care manual for details.

Maintain your mulch (and compost). Keeping a 3-inch layer of mulch around trees and plants reduces runoff, helps control weeds and protects soil from direct sunlight and evaporation. Keep mulch at least a foot away from tree trunks and several inches from the crowns of plants. Also, add compost to increase soil nutrients.

Use water efficiently

Drink responsibly. Keep drinking water cool in your refrigerator to avoid running the tap. Use refillable water bottles instead of buying disposable plastic bottles.

Put a lid on it. Pool and spa covers reduce evaporation, lower pool heating costs and keep dirt and other debris out of the pool.

Let your lawn grow

Take a break. New plants need more water to get established, so wait until fall and winter for planting to take advantage of cooler temperatures and rain.

Go to summer school. Get started planning your WaterSmart landscape by surfing WaterSmart Landscaping Videos On Demand from the comfort of your beach chair or sofa.

Let your lawn grow. Set your mower to leave grass at least 3 inches high because taller blades reduce evaporation up to 80 percent and protect roots from heat.

Keep it clean. Patronize car washes that recycle water and save at least 15 gallons each time. When washing at home, use a hose nozzle that shuts off when you release the handle.

Rinse right. Wash fruits and vegetables in a bowl of water instead of in running water. Afterward, pour the collected water on a plant.

More information on how residents and business can use water efficiently, along with rebates, classes and other water-saving resources, at