Modesto’s effort to plant 5,000 trees ended with rising costs and dead trees

Modesto officials were justifiably proud when a state agency awarded the city a $326,940 grant in 2015 to plant 5,000 trees. The grant was a key element in the city’s effort to bring new life to its community forestry division and the city’s urban forest.

But the city had trouble carrying out the grant. It underestimated the cost of buying, planting and caring for the trees, and about a quarter of the nearly 2,900 trees the city did plant died. The city did not have the budget to hire more staff needed to carry out the grant, and it underestimated how much of its own money it would need to spend.

So Modesto on Tuesday ended the grant early, with the City Council unanimously approving to reimburse the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — which issued the grant — $55,552 for the cost of the dead trees and for the amount the city overspent for the trees it did plant.

The city used nearly $200,000 of the grant in planting 2,896 trees, according to a city report.

This is not the typical outcome for one of these grants, nor is it typical for so many trees to die, said Greg Dion, Cal Fire’s regional urban forester for the San Joaquin Valley.

Dion said Modesto used outdated research in calculating the cost of buying, planting and maintaining the 5,000 trees. He also said the city planted the trees along streets in residential neighborhoods. While the city watered the trees, it also asked homeowners to help water them.

Dion said it can be difficult to get homeowners to properly water trees and said that is why most local governments and nonprofits that receive grants plant trees at schools, at churches, in parks and on other property they own. Modesto also started planting trees while the region still was in the grip of a devastating drought.

But Dion emphasized this should not be viewed as a failure. “By no means was the grant unsuccessful,” he said in a phone interview. “It was not a failure in anyone’s eyes when 2,000 trees (roughly the number of trees that have survived) are planted. The city will benefit from those 2,000 trees for many years.”

When asked why Cal Fire did not spot these potential problems when it reviewed Modesto’s grant application, Dion said, “at the time of reading it, it looked like a great grant. Modesto is renowned for its urban forest.”

He said it is not uncommon for a city or other grant applicant to underestimate the cost of carrying out a grant but not to the extent that Modesto did. He added Cal Fire has learned from this experience and is looking at grant applications with more scrutiny.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves said in a text that “in our eagerness to apply for and receive funds ... we were too conservative in our estimates, and it is costing the city a considerable amount over what we applied for. ... In order to remain competitive for future (Cal Fire) grants, and in consultation with (Cal Fire), it was more prudent to return a portion of the previous grant while we work on increasing the request in the next solicitation of proposals.”

A city report states Modesto expected to spend $107,097 of its own money in matching funds to plant the 5,000 trees but actually spent at least $164,246 to plant 2,896 trees and expected to spend significantly more money to maintain those trees and plant the remaining ones.

Public Works Director Bill Sandhu said that ending the grant also lets the forestry division focus its limited resources on the city’s existing trees. “We want to maintain our already mature trees,” he said.

Modesto was among 34 cities, counties, special districts and nonprofits that were awarded nearly $20 million in grants by Cal Fire in July 2015 to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon by planting trees in urban areas and to protect more than 2,400 acres of forest from development.

Jocelyn Reed, who was then Modesto’s solid waste manager, said the grants were competitive, with 169 organizations applying for funding.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.