Saving Water By Not Watering Lawns

Saving Water By Not Watering Lawns


Last year my family and I grew a garden in our front yard. We had tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and so much more. These plants needed watering regularly, and to our disappointment we received a citation for our water usage from the city. This citation prompted me to do some research into the California drought. In a paper titled “Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture,” by UC Davis, they calculated that the daily cost of the California drought is over six million dollars per day (over two billion dollars for the year)! This money includes the cost of fracking or drilling and pulling water from underground ($454 million dollars this year), revenues lost from failed agriculture ($810 million dollars this year), and livestock and dairy revenue losses ($203 million dollars this year). As members of the state we have an obligation to conserve water and one of the most important things we can do is stop watering lawns and installing grass.

There is a severe drought in California that is affecting the entire country. According to an article by the California Department of Water Resources by J.A. Moore, published July 2014, reservoirs are below 40% of their capacity. Governor Brown declared a statewide emergency in January 2014, as this is the worst drought on record. Hanak, Chapelle, and Moore’s 2014 report, titled “ California’s Latest Drought,” discusses how precipitation, including rainfall and snow, were 70% below normal. The drought is clearly severe, with little rainfall or snowfall and low reservoirs. But what impact does this have on us?

The California drought is costly and expensive in many ways. The 2014 UC Davis report also describes how the drought has cost over 17,000 people their jobs, mostly agricultural workers. Because crops are not as successful with less water, fewer workers are needed to support the farms. Since farmers can’t grow as many crops, fewer workers are needed and many in the agricultural industry are losing their jobs. This has a ripple effect. As there is less being grown, shippers and truckers across the nation are also moving less and losing business. Grocers everywhere need to increase prices for items to make up the difference. The drought is also costing farmers about $454 million dollars this year to pump extra water from underground. In Chris Clarke’s 2014 article, “If California’s Drought Weren’t Scary Enough, Now It May Trigger Earthquakes,” he describes how drilling for water underground may disrupt the bedrock and lead to more earthquakes and tremors, which could be catastrophically expensive for all citizens. Additionally, our state government is providing financial assistance to farmers who are struggling in this drought. This detracts from our state budget and could even lead to increased taxes over time if the drought continues.

Finally, this additional cost to grow crops affects the whole nation as food prices increase. You’ve likely noticed nut, produce, and dairy prices skyrocketing. These crops all rely on water. Personally, I’ve seen the bulk price of cashews at Winco go from $2.90 per pound to over $6.00, which is more than double the price in one short year. “California’s Latest Drought” also describes how prices of things like lettuce, strawberries, and nuts could increase by as much as ANOTHER 50% in the next year. This adds up to a huge increased cost for consumers all across the nation. California provides 100% of the country’s almonds, walnuts, and pistachios and over 90% of the country’s avocados, broccoli, carrots, celery, plums, and grapes — just to name a few. Increased farming will cause prices for all of these items to increase everywhere in the United States, not just in California, creating a nationwide problem (Hanak, Chapelle, and Moore).

The last thing I’d like to point out about our drought problem is the fact that watering lawns wastes water. I want to tackle the issue of lawns in relation to drought because the average residential customer spends 60% of their water on outdoor irrigation. According to the Los Angeles water conservation program, as much as 50% of the water used outdoors is wasted due to inefficient irrigation. Leaky sprinklers and poorly installed irrigation can waste gallons of water every day. For people interested in doing their part to reduce water waste from lawns, TreePeople, a southern California environmental advocacy group that focuses on water conservation, is a great resource. They offer a series of native landscaping and turf reduction classes that teach residents how to safely and beautifully reduce their water consumption. They also have online guides on installing rain barrels and using greywater from laundry to water native plants in your yard. Because they are a nonprofit organization, their focus is largely on educating people about water conservation and giving the public the tools that they need to start reducing their water use.

Obviously the drought is a complex problem and much of it, like farmland irrigation and rainfall, is out of our control. Something we can control, however, is the amount of water we use. Since so much of residential water goes to watering lawns, this should be the first problem we tackle. Every citizen should stop watering their lawn. Most water districts are only allowing people to water 1 time per week, which isn’t enough water to keep grass green anyway. Kurtis Alexander writes about how lawmakers are writing legislation that will keep homeowner’s associations from penalizing homeowners who let their lawns turn brown.

As California faces its worst drought in decades, residents are being asked to make sacrifices to save water: take shorter showers, launder less and forgo the occasional flush. For some, though, the biggest hardship has been surrendering the vigor of a bright green lawn.

The author is describing how there are many ways to help, but stopping watering lawns is one of the hardest — yet, most important — things we can do to help with the drought.

Transitioning to native landscaping is another option. There are many native plants that we can put into our garden that would require little to no watering. For example, Glenn Keator describes the Desert Trixis in “The Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California” as an “out-of-the-ordinary small shrub” that has “a flush of spring flower heads that draw attention” (261). Most importantly for our consideration, he lists the water requirements as “NONE” which means that once established this beautiful flower will require no watering to maintain its green growth and spring flowers. Also, some “turf removal” programs pay homeowners for every square foot of yard space that they convert from water-wasting grass into a landscaped area that doesn’t require watering. These landscaped areas have drought tolerant plants (like cactus and succulents), rocks, and lots of mulch. Many cities offer monetary incentives to install drought tolerant landscaping, which helps offset the expense of tearing up your lawn and replacing it. Over time, residents will save money on their water bill too, according to Last Oasis Facing Water Scarcity by Sandra Postel:

A water-saving practice many communities in the United States have turned to in recent years is Xeriscape landscaping. From the Greek word xeros, meaning dry, Xeriscape designs draw on a wide variety of attractive indigenous and drought-tolerant plants, shrubs and ground cover to replace the thirsty green lawns found in most suburbs (158).

If a resident doesn’t have a lawn, they can encourage neighbors to stop watering their lawns. Call the homeowners associations and request that common areas are renovated to no longer require watering. Homeowner’s associations often spend money on landscaping, and the tenants would save money long term if landscaping was low maintenance and drought-friendly. Everyone should encourage local businesses and public properties to replace lawns with native plants and/or rock-scapes that do not require watering. The California capitol building has stopped watering their lawn in an effort to save water. The grass their has turned brown and is dying. This sets a great example for other individuals and businesses in the state.

Imagine reducing residential water consumption by over 50%. This can happen if we simply stop watering lawns. We need to change our perception and realize that while green grass looks nice, we need to save our water for more important things. Get used to brown lawns. We need to reprogram the way we think of brown, dead grass. Instead of being a symbol of laziness or apathy, instead an unwatered lawn is a step towards water conservation. Someone with dead grass isn’t lazy — they care about our water resources. The same article I mentioned above, by the San Francisco Chronicle, also discussed how a brown lawn might be “the new Prius”. The author, Kurtis Alexander, is implying that when we see a hybrid Prius we think, “Oh wow they must care about the earth” and that soon we’ll be thinking the same about people with dead grass.

We can see that water conservation should be an important concern. We must tackle the large problem with many small steps. An important small step is stopping watering lawns. I recently polled over 160 people about the California drought and found out that less than 4% of these people knew how much water they were using on a monthly basis. With California facing huge economic losses due to our low water reservoirs, I found it surprising that most people weren’t even aware of how much water they were using at home. I think that this lack of awareness is one of the main reasons that people are not adhering to water restrictions and that so many people are still watering their lawns. For instance, if residents don’t realize how much water a lawn sprinkler uses, they may not feel pressured to change their water habits. If they were aware of how many gallons per hour are wasted through spray sprinklers, leaky sprinkler pipes, and poorly planned irrigation systems they may feel more pressure to use water responsibly. It’s as if most people are operating according to the “out of sight, out of mind” principle where it isn’t something they see on a daily basis, so for the most part, they don’t really think about it. The good news is that over 59% of the people polled would consider drought tolerant landscaping to help do their part for water conservation. The remaining people were “against” it for multiple reasons, including the fact that they are renting and were not able to install drought tolerant landscaping or that they don’t have any grass to replace. Of course, a very small number of people love their grass and were against replacing it, but I still found that a large majority was receptive to the changes we need in order to preserve our state’s water resources.

I challenge citizens to the following tasks:

  • Stop watering lawns and grass. Residents can watch their water bill and see how much water (and money!) is saved every month.
  • Share with others the importance of water conservation, especially with outdoor irrigation.

Obviously no one wants to get a citation, but after being cited for watering my front yard I can honestly say that I don’t blame my local water agency for citing me. A lot of people simply aren’t aware of how severe the drought is and how much it is impacting our state and country. Fortunately, we can make small steps to help alleviate the problem.

Work cited:

Alexander, K. (2014, June 17). The Green Lawn: American Staple or Water Waster? The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 4, 2014, from http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-green-lawn-American-staple-or-water-waster-5557038.php

Chris, C. (2014, August 4). If California’s Drought Weren’t Scary Enough, Now It May Trigger Earthquakes. Retrieved November 3, 2014.

Hanak, E., Chappelle, C., & Moore, J. (2014, February 1). California’s Latest Drought (PPIC Publication). Retrieved November 2, 2014.

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, California. 20p. Available at <http://watershed.ucdavis.edu>.

Keator, Glenn. “Native Shrubs, by Genus.” Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1994. 79-269. Print

Moore, J. A. (2014, July 1). Water Conditions. Retrieved November 2, 2014.

Postel, Sandra. “Conserving in Cities.” Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992. 146-161. Print.

“TreePeople.” TreePeople. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 April 2015.

Personal Survey Created and Conducted by Brandi Rodarte and Elliot Vega 4/25/15

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