Is Watering My Yard Bad for the Environment?
I’m sure we all have childhood memories of playing in the yard, being chased by the dog, playing whiffle ball, and climbing on the jungle gym dad spent two days building when the instruction manual clearly said 2-3 hours. Who can forget the countless grass stains on our pant legs and the itchy skin after a good wrestle? Definitely not mom. As kids, we loved the yard, it was our personal playground in which to make-believe, it was our safety mat for our unsure stunt attempts. It was a friend forever-ready to play. But as we grew older our friend became neglected and the lawn was forgotten, except on watering days and mowing days…and of course a dog never neglects a good lawn. No worry though, the lawn still looks nice and all we have to do is maintain it, it’s no big deal. The problem is that it is a big deal. That lawn is doing more harm than you think.
An History Lesson
As with most things, the picture will become a little clearer with a bit of historical background. Thousands of years ago grass grew naturally and spread over most of Western Europe. In its natural state grass goes dormant during the winter and is dry and brown in the summer, reducing its need for water, but you know what we all think of brown grass. Grass is also very resilient to drought. Turf Grass soon became a luxury item of the super-rich in Great Britain as they were the only ones who had the wealth to maintain it. European immigrants brought grass seeds to the states where it remained an item only enjoyed by the very wealthy. However, as 18th-century industrialization fed growing cities those cities demanded beautification in the forms of parks and public lawns. Suburbs were also developed with individual lawns for each house. With the growing (pun intended) demand for personal lawns we had to invent ways of keeping them verdant, vibrant, short and soft because most of the U.S. does not have the same cool, rainy climate that Great Britain does. The lawn mower and garden hose followed quickly.
High-Fructose Grass Syrup
If I asked you what the most irrigated crop in the U.S. was you might say corn. You would be wrong. The most irrigated crop in the U.S. is turf grass, the kind that makes up our lawns. There is 30 million acres of irrigated lawn in this country, which is three times more than corn. Turf grass covers 1.9% of the land in the continental U.S.--and we can’t even eat it! How do we maintain a crop that does not grow here naturally? We have to water it and to do so we use 4 billion gallons of potable water a day. That equals about 1/3 of the residential drinking water in this country. 4 billion gallons a day, and this is not reclaimed water, this is water clean and intended for drinking. Just to break it down a little more: 30% of the drinking water on the East Coast goes to lawns and 60% goes to keeping the lawns green and alive on the West Coast.
They Kill More Than Just Weeds and Bugs
But you might argue that grass is good and worth the water: it is a plant and plants help the environment don’t they? The answer to that is yes, grass does convert carbon dioxide and water into beautiful life-giving oxygen and all while decreasing greenhouse gases. The only problem is that we don’t just water our grass; we also feed it with fertilizer and repel bugs and weeds with pesticides and herbicides. Each year we dump 70 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides onto our lawns. These chemicals not only run-off into our water supplies, but also kill 60-70 million birds each year and some pesticides have been known to kill 60-90% of the earthworm population where applied. Yes, I know worms are gross, but they have a multitude of benefits for our soil and environment-they are good! Fertilizers also release nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere, thus worsening the greenhouse gas effects.
Unfortunately, there is one more adverse effect of maintaining our lawns. That “maintenance” requires tools and most of those tools (e.g. mowers, leaf blowers, edgers/trimmers, etc.) use gasoline. Unlike automobiles, the small engines (fewer than 25 horse-power) used by these tools are almost entirely unregulated. Some California regulators say that using a chain-saw for two hours produces as much pollution as ten cars each driving 250 miles. Combine this pollution with the nitrous oxide fertilizer releases and the pollution fertilizer production causes and we see that the harmful side-effects of having grass equal or outweigh the benefits.
They Definitely Don't Suck...Very Much Water
There are many things we can do to minimize not only the water that we use to water our yards, but also the pollution we emit into the air while maintaining them. The most effective practice is Xeriscaping (or xerogardening), which is the use of native plants and mulch to minimize watering and maintenance. You could plant clover or wildflowers instead of grass, both of which are hardy and require little water. In California, Mediterranean-style plants are the best because of the similar climates. Succulents are very low-maintenance as well as many tall grasses. Another benefit of this habitat gardening style is that you gain the variety that grass lacks. Give your new water-friendly landscape some color with Daises, Black-eyed Susans, and Russian Sage. Not only will this type of yard require far less work and time to maintain, it will also require much less water. A yard of moderate-use plants will consume about 15,000 gallons of water a year and low-water plants will drop water consumption down to only 6,000 gallons of water a year compared to the 25,000 gallons of water a traditional 1,000 square foot grass lawn consumes. It is true that many city landscaping codes have tied homeowner’s hands when it came to grass alternatives, requiring what they referred to as “nice lawns,” but many of these regulations have slackened considering droughts and water-shortages in many regions across the U.S. Former Governor Schwarzenegger even put in place regulations that require the use of water meters-much like electrical meters- throughout California by 2025.
Be a Trend-Setter
Despite the obstacles and taboo of going against tradition these types of yards are becoming more and more common. I believe that if more people knew of the strain that grass lawns put on our water supply as well as our environment they would strongly consider these alternatives. In the end, what would we be replacing? Long-forgotten, heavily-neglected, but resource dependent patches of grass. The next time you drive down a residential street take note of how many utterly unused lawns there are and picture a more native, and colorful landscape, one that is not stealing drinking water from you.
Examples of Xeriscaping
Schrenk, Kathy. “Another reason lawns are bad.” Schrenk Wrap (2007) <http://schrenkrap.blogspot.com/2007/06/another-reason-lawns-are-bad.html>
Townsend-Small, Amy and Czimczik, Claudia I. “Urban 'green' spaces may contribute to global warming.” AGU Release No. 10-02 (2010) <http://www.agu.org/news/press/pr_archives/2010/2010-02.shtml>
Zielinski, Sarah. “Another Downside to Your Classic Green Lawn.” Smithsonian.com (2010) <http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2010/01/another-downside-to-your-classic-green-lawn/>
Cox, Ted. “Kill your lawn.” Newsreview.com (2010) <http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/kill-your-lawn/content?oid=1485494>
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