Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Why We Must Kill Our Lawn

Climate
Why We Must Kill Our Lawn

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?

 

Closely shorn grass lawns, like those in most yards across the United States, first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of large, wealthy landowners. Photo credit: Michael Coppola

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

  1. Replace turf with native/climate-appropriate plants
  2. Retain rainwater and stormwater onsite
  3. 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.

Read page 1

But with attractive alternatives to water-hungry turf now widely available, the continued installation of ornamental turf in new landscapes has to be seen as a wasteful practice. Functional turf has its place, now and in our future, for playing surfaces and places where people assemble. But turf as an ornamental ground cover should be disallowed in state regulations covering new landscapes, and DWR has stopped short of that goal.

With attractive alternatives to water-hungry turf now widely available, the continued installation of ornamental turf in new landscapes has to be seen as a wasteful practice. Photo credit: Steve and Michelle Gerdes

2. Onsite Retention of Stormwater

Preventing rainwater from running off into gutters and into oceans and streams (picking up debris and polluted substances along the way) simultaneously improves water quality and reduces the waste of water that is otherwise shunted away to storm drains. The avoidance of waste requires the treatment of rainwater and stormwater as resources.

On-site retention and infiltration is already required by many stormwater permits applying to large new projects in major cities. By including this requirement in the Model Ordinance, we can ensure that rainwater is put to beneficial use in new developments of all types throughout California. DWR's new draft Model Ordinance encourages, but does not require, rainwater catchment and storm water retention. Unfortunately, previous "recommendations" in the Model Ordinance have not been effective.

Given the magnitude of the state's need for maintaining adequate water supplies and for improving the quality of stormwater discharges, a reasonable requirement for on-site retention for new development just makes sense. A clear standard for retention and infiltration in the Model Ordinance will help ameliorate both the water quality and water availability challenges facing the state. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.

3. Metering Outdoor Water Use

You can't manage what you don't measure. DWR took a positive step by including new requirements for separate measurement of water applied to landscape irrigation. Unfortunately, under the proposed revision, the installation of meters are limited that to larger properties. This requirement must apply to all parcels covered by MWELO. The only way a landscape can be managed to ensure that it stays within the water budget to which it was designed is by measuring the amount of water being applied.

Can you imagine trying to manage your finances if you never saw a bank balance? Inexpensive meters are available for this purpose, and the capability for property owners to conveniently read such meters and analyze their data through mobile devices is growing.

While DWR proposes that most new commercial landscapes have meters, the new proposal exempts most residential landscapes from any measurement requirement. Yet residential landscape water use is even larger than commercial landscape use as a share of total urban water usage. Installation of a meter to measure the water used to irrigate new residential landscapes should be required.

We are in the fourth year of an epic drought ... with no end in sight. And we know that we are likely to see more frequent and intense droughts in the future. We must find a way to use our precious and limited drinking water supply more efficiently; and surely using it to water plants that serve no purpose other than aesthetics isn't the best use for half of that supply.

We must make better use of alternative sources such as graywater and rainwater, we must measure what we use, and we must move away from large swaths of turf and toward beautiful landscapes filled with native, drought-resilient plants.

New landscapes are an opportunity to build smarter communities right from the start, and a stronger model landscape ordinance can point the way.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

8 Major Cities Running Out of Water

Drought-Stricken California Orders Largest Recorded Water Cuts for Farmers

GMO Grass: Coming to a Lawn Near You?

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building. Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

By Shelly Miller

The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.

Read More Show Less
California Senator Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP via Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic announcement Tuesday when he named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 presidential election.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

A northern mockingbird on June 24, 2016. Renee Grayson / CC BY 2.0

Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).

Read More Show Less
A spiny dogfish shark swims in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.

Read More Show Less
A "vessel of opportunity" skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. NOAA / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun

After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The Mountain Valley Pipeline proposes to carry natural gas for hundreds of miles over dozens of water sources, through protected areas and crossing the Appalachian Trail. Appalachian Trail Conservancy / YouTube

It's been a bad summer for fracked natural gas pipelines in North Carolina.

Read More Show Less