Why America’s Great Lawn Is Terrible For The West’s Water Crisis


By Rachel Ramirez, CNN

(CNN) – As California plunges even deeper into its multi-year mega-drought after an alarmingly dry winter, authorities are keeping tabs on what experts say is a major culprit of the crisis: water-guzzling lawns. water.

Residents and businesses in counties around Los Angeles were told this week that they should limit outdoor water use to one day a week starting June 1. This is the first time that water officials have enforced such a strict rule.

“This is a crisis. This is unprecedented,” said Adel Hagekhalil, chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “We’ve never done anything like this before and because we’ve never seen this situation happen like this before.”

The Great American Lawn has always been a status symbol and portrayed as a place of recreation and comfort. But they need exorbitant amounts of water to sustain themselves, water that is quickly depleted.

Grass was the largest irrigated “crop” in America, surpassing corn and wheat, according to a frequently cited study by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He noted that in the early 2000s, turf — mostly in front lawns — spanned about 63,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Georgia.

According to this study, keeping all that lawn alive requires up to 75% of a single household’s water usage, which is a luxury that California is unable to afford as drought caused by climate change pushes reservoirs to historic lows.

In Southern California — dotted with wealthy celebrity mansions and pristine green gardens — having conventional lawns simply won’t work anymore as the consequences of climate change intensify, said John Fleck, director of the water resources program. at the University of New Mexico. .

“You want to have space in your yard for your kids to play in, so a small patch of grass isn’t great,” Fleck told CNN. “It’s just the big expanse of lawn – which really isn’t used other than ‘because it’s pretty’ – that needs to go. That’s what we can’t have anymore.

“We just can’t afford to buy water,” he said.

water pigs

America’s obsession with grass dates back to 17th-century England, Fleck said, where meticulously manicured lawns became a “symbol of status and wealth” due to the high cost of maintaining them.

“This idea of ​​lawns as a display of status really became ingrained in the culture of gardening in this country with British colonialism, so it kind of traveled west with us and took all that work,” Fleck said. .

In the United States, lawns grew and thrived on the East Coast, “where it rains all the time, and you don’t need to add a lot of extra irrigation water,” Fleck said. And when Americans marched west, they took with them “the landscape with which they were familiar and comfortable.”

“The big problem is that we brought grasses into this southwestern climate that come from wetter places,” Fleck said. “The classic example is called Kentucky bluegrass.”

Kentucky bluegrass, native to Europe and Asia but growing especially well in parts of the eastern United States, requires far more water than the West can provide.

Water doesn’t last long in the arid southwest. Hot, dry air quickly evaporates water, increasing the amount needed to saturate a lawn. This effect is even greater on hot summer days – the warmer air can absorb more of it – this is also when it is most difficult to find enough water.

In California, the amount of water needed to maintain a lawn varies; the state is home to nearly a dozen subclimates ranging from humid and cool to hot and dry.

So a 1,500 square foot lawn in Crescent City on the North Shore could need 22,000 gallons of water per year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

But further south, the needs increase considerably. The same size lawn in Los Angeles would need 43,000 gallons per year. An hour east of Palm Springs, it jumps to 63,000 gallons per year.

Now consider the fact that the average lawn size in California is closer to 5,500 square feet, according to HomeAdvisor, and you can see how lawn care in the West could start to take up a significant chunk of a home’s budget. household water.

According to the Department of Water Resources, approximately half of California’s urban residential water use is used for outdoor landscaping, primarily due to its low humidity and hot summers. The average indoor water use for a Californian is about 51 gallons per day — or 19,000 gallons per year — according to the agency.

Lawn mowers, weeders, fertilizers

In addition to heavy water use, gas-powered lawn mowers emit cancer-causing pollutants and planet-warming gases, which in turn contribute to the region’s climate crisis and drought.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment emitted more than 22 million tons of carbon emissions in 2018. Each year, the agency estimates that more than 17 million gallons of gasoline are dumped just to refuel equipment.

Grass also has a harder time accessing and absorbing water when fertilized, which means more frequent watering is needed. Fertilizers improve plant growth, which increases its density both above and below ground. The roots can become compacted, which ultimately reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.

Scientists have linked fertilizer use to increased evapotranspiration, the process by which water moves from the soil into the air. In the West, lack of precipitation and an increase in evaporative demand – also known as “atmospheric thirst” – are the two main drivers of the region’s water crisis. Warmer temperatures increase the amount of water the atmosphere can absorb, which then dries out the landscape.

What you can do different

Fleck, who lives in a lawnless suburban home in Albuquerque, said if he had a lawn, it would likely require the same amount of water that a “thrifty indoor water user” consumes in a day.

“If you’re going to have outdoor landscaping, the biggest bang for your ‘money’ is the trees, not the lawns,” he said. “With trees, you get a cooling effect in the urban heat island, you save air conditioning energy in the shade, and in an urban area that struggles with air quality like the Southern California, trees help clean the air.”

Some cities are already tackling excessive water use by offering homeowner buyouts to replace their lawns with alternatives such as native plants or xeriscaping.

One of San Diego’s leading water conservation programs is paying homeowners to rip up gardens full of Kentucky bluegrass and other lawn grasses — $4 per square foot — and replace them with plants of the desert much more water-efficient. Since the program began, the city says it has successfully replaced 42 million square feet of grass lawns.

Last year, Nevada passed a bill to ban ornamental grass, requiring the removal of all “non-functional turf” from the Las Vegas Valley by 2027. The Colorado River, which supplies water much of Nevada, has been declining at an alarming rate. The state’s latest conservation effort would save about 10 percent of the Colorado River Basin region’s annual water allocation.

“Native landscaping makes sense and can be really beautiful,” Fleck said. “One of my favorite western cities is Tucson, and it’s embraced this native landscaping aesthetic and it’s just a beautiful city, and it just uses a lot less water to do it.”

Fleck said he expects “the brown lawn to be a badge of honor” soon.

“It feels like I’m contributing to the well-being of our community in this time of crisis by not watering my lawn,” he said. “And I expect that to become the status symbol.”

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