Water is one of the most important natural resources on our planet and it is necessary for the survival of all life. Even more precious is water clean enough to drink, to cook with and to bathe. Why then, in a state prone to severe droughts, would we use half of our drinking water outdoors? Why would we pump water hundreds of miles from its source, treat it so that it is clean enough to drink, just to spray it on our lawns?
In a state where climate change is projected to lead to more frequent and intense droughts, we must face up to the fact that thirsty grass is no longer appropriate in California.
The lawn is thought to have originated in Europe, which makes sense because the moist, mild climate supports open, close-cut grasslands. Some of the earliest lawns as we’ve come to know them were the grasslands around medieval castles in France and Britain, kept clear of trees so guards had an unobstructed view. Closely shorn grass lawns, like those in most yards across the U.S., first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of large, wealthy landowners. Before lawnmowers, only the rich could afford to hire the many hands needed to scythe and weed the grass, and only the rich could dedicate such resources to a luxury with no productive value—so a lawn was a mark of wealth and status.
Today, lawns are a representation of the American dream—a home with a yard full of green grass and a white picket fence. But in places like California, it’s time for that ideal to change.
As our population grows and climate change brings us more frequent and intense droughts with interceding years of heavy rain, our outdoor spaces provide an opportunity not only to stretch our limited resources, but create the climate resilient, locally sustainable communities we’ll need to flourish in the years to come. How do we do this?
There are three important elements of a sustainable landscape
- Replace turf with native/climate-appropriate plants
- Retain rainwater and stormwater onsite
- Install meters to measure water use
To make the biggest impact, these elements must be incorporated into state regulations. In California, state regulation of landscape water use is done primarily through the publication of a “Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance” (MWELO), which as the name implies, is to be adopted and enforced by local government agencies. However, under state law, if localities fail to adopt this model ordinance or something equally stringent, the provisions of the Model Ordinance take on the force of law anyway. So the model ordinance is, in fact, a statewide regulation by default—a minimum set of requirements that are applicable in every jurisdiction.
As part of the state’s emergency response to the drought, Gov. Brown has called for a directive to tighten state rules to make new landscapes more water-efficient. Directive 11 of the April 2015 Executive Order (shown below) requires an update of the MWELO to increase water efficiency in new and existing landscapes through more efficient irrigation, graywater use, onsite stormwater capture, and by limiting turf. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has responded with a draft proposal that points the way to better landscapes and water stewardship, but falls short of several needed changes that would transform our turf heavy outdoor spaces to sustainable, pollution reducing, climate-appropriate landscapes.
Directive 11: The Department shall update the State Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance through expedited regulation. This updated Ordinance shall increase water efficiency standards for new and existing landscapes through more efficient irrigation systems, greywater usage, onsite storm water capture, and by limiting the portion of landscapes that can be covered in turf. It will also require reporting on the implementation and enforcement of local ordinances, with required reports due by Dec. 31. The Department shall provide information on local compliance to the Water Board, which shall consider adopting regulations or taking appropriate enforcement actions to promote compliance. The Department shall provide technical assistance and give priority in grant funding to public agencies for actions necessary to comply with local ordinances.
Where the DWR Proposal Falls Short
1. The Water Budget
As the name implies, this is the quantity of water that a new landscape must be designed to stay within. With a reduced water allowance, developers and designers of new landscapes will need to employ more efficient irrigation technology and select plant materials that require less water. The levels proposed by DWR are likely to rule out turf grass in commercial developments, while allowing about 25 percent of a new landscape to be turf in residential developments.