Arroyo Grande Cemetery full of dirt patches and gophers after officals stop watering grass

Oct 20, 2016

California's drought has brought in many different effects on places around the state and, in this case, a cemetery. The Arroyo Grande Cemetery stopped watering its grass last year due to drought conditions. Now, while it cut down on water costs people with loved ones in the cemetery are upset because it doesn't look like it's in tip top shape anymore. Chris McGuinness is a reporter for The New Times where he's been reporting on this cemetery. KCBX's Bree Zender spoke with him on Thursday.

Note: This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

Zender: So what are conditions at the cemetery like right now?

McGuinness: Well I mean if you're driving by the Arroyo Grande Cemetery on [Highway] 101, the condition of it is pretty clear even from there. Most of the grass is dead. It's very dusty. I even when I went there I even saw you know dust covering a lot of the headstone markers. In addition to that they have a pretty large groundhog infestation. So the ground is cratered with these holes and the terrain is very uneven.

Zender: And so they stopped watering it and 2015 due to drought conditions?

McGuinness: Yeah, that's correct. They stopped watering due to the drought conditions. And the cemetery actually uses quite a bit of water. From what I got in 2012, they used about 1.9 million gallons of water. And as they cut that down in 2015 they reduced that to about 680,000 gallons.

Zender: And who's they in this situation?

McGuinness: I'm sorry. That's the Arroyo Grande Cemetery District. They're a special county district. The cemetery is not part of the city of Arroyo Grande.

Zender: And people are upset about this?

McGuinness: A couple of the people that I talked to for this story said that they think that the uneven terrain because of the gopher problem is actually a safety hazard. I've had a couple of people express to me that there are older people with their loved ones in the cemetery that may have issues with mobility that may have a hard time getting out to that headstone.

Zender: Is there anything that's being done to make the grounds better right now?

McGuinness: Not particularly. I know they do water the trees they have oak trees there they don't want those to die. But from what I've been told, from the standpoint of the cemetery district, which is run by a three person board, their hands are kind of tied to do any kind of mitigation either to start watering again or to make the cemetery more drought tolerant or to install turf  would cost quite a bit of money. And the cemetery has a very, very small budget.

Zender: Can you tell me an example of somebody who's upset about this?

McGuinness: Yeah. One of the people I talked to was Miranda Osteen. Her mother is buried in the cemetery. She's one of two women who have really been leading the charge on trying to get something done. They've started petitions. They've started a Facebook group. They've gone to this cemetery district board meetings and she has really been pushing for them to find ways either to find money or grants to either get the cemetery you know kind of back in the shape that she wants it to be in or find some kind of alternative to take care of this.

Zender: Is this a problem for a lot of California cemeteries?

McGuinness: It doesn't appear to be. If you drive around, especially in SLO County, a lot of the other cemeteries are still green and are still able to water. The problem is, specifically with the Arroyo Grande Cemetery District, is that the money that they get to pay for running the cemetery comes from property taxes. Unfortunately, when those taxes were set the tax rate was set very low. They only get about $114,000 from taxes. That is not very much at all. When you look at other places like, let's say the Paso Robles cemetery. They get more than $400,000 from their property taxes. And unfortunately, to change that around a cemetery district you'd have to put a ballot initiative to voters. And as we know trying to raise people's taxes isn't always a very popular thing to do.

Chris McGuinness is a reporter for The New Times. His report about the Arroyo Grande Cemetery drought damage is on New Times newsstands now.