Residents and businesses in counties around Los Angeles were told this week that they will need to limit outdoor water use to one day a week starting June 1. It is the first time that water officials have implemented such a strict rule.
“This is a crisis. This is unprecedented,” said Adel Hajj Khalil, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. “We’ve never done anything like this before and because we’ve never seen a situation like this before.”
The Great American Garden has historically been a status symbol and has been portrayed as a place of recreation and rest. But it does require a lot of water to maintain – water that runs out quickly.
Keeping all that front lawn alive requires up to 75% of just one family’s water consumption, according to that study, a luxury California can’t afford as droughts caused by climate change are pushing reservoirs to historic lows.
In southern California — dotted with affluent celebrity mansions and pristine green squares — traditional grass lawns will no longer function as the consequences of climate change intensify, said John Flick, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. .
“You want to have a space in your backyard for your kids to play in, so a little bit of lawn isn’t horrible,” Flick told CNN. “It’s just a large area of lawn – not really being used other than ‘because it looks nice’ – it has to go. That’s what we can’t have anymore.”
“We can’t save water for her,” he said.
“The idea of lawns as a sign of prestige became so embedded in this country’s horticultural culture with British colonialism, so it kind of traveled west with us and it took all that effort,” Flick said.
In the United States, lawns have expanded and thrived on the East Coast, “where it rains all the time, and you don’t need to add a lot of supplemental irrigation water,” Flick said. As the Americans walked west, they took with them “the landscapes with which they were familiar and comfortable.”
“The big problem is that we’ve brought grasses into this climate in the Southwest that come from places that are much wetter,” Flick said. “The classic example is called the Kentucky Bluegrass.”
Kentucky bluegrass, which is native to Europe and Asia but grows particularly well in parts of the eastern United States, requires far more water than the West can provide.
Water does not last long in the arid southwest. Hot, dry air quickly vaporizes the water, which in turn increases the amount needed to saturate the lawn. This effect increases even more on hot summer days – warmer air can absorb more – and also when it’s hard to get an ample amount of water.
In California, the amount of water needed to maintain a lawn varies. The state is home to nearly a dozen temperate climates that range from humid and cold to hot and dry.
So a 1,500-square-foot lawn in Crescent City on the North Coast might need 22,000 gallons of water per year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
But in the far south, the need increases dramatically. A lawn of the same size in Los Angeles needs 43,000 gallons per year. An hour east of that in Palm Springs, it jumps to 63,000 gallons a year.
Nearly half of California’s urban water consumption is used for outdoor landscapes, primarily due to low humidity and hot, hot summers, according to the Water Resources Department. The average indoor water consumption in California is about 51 gallons per day — or 19,000 gallons per year — according to the agency.
Lawn mowers, weed cutters, fertilizer
Besides the extensive use of water, gas-powered lawn mowers emit potentially cancer-causing pollutants and greenhouse gases, which in turn contribute to the region’s climate crisis and drought.
Grass also has trouble reaching and absorbing water when it is fertilized, which means more frequent watering is needed. Fertilizers promote plant growth, increasing its density above and below ground. The roots can become compacted, which eventually reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.
What you can do different
Flick, who lives in a lawnless suburban home in Albuquerque, said that if he had a lawnmower, he would probably require the same amount of water as a “thrifty indoor water user” in a day.
“If you’re going to have outdoor landscaping,” he said, “the biggest bang for your buck is the trees, not the lawns.” “With trees, you get an urban heat island cooling effect, save air conditioning power from shade, and in an urban area that struggles with air quality like Southern California, trees help clean the air.”
“The original landscaping makes sense and can be really beautiful,” Flick said. “One of my favorite western cities is Tucson, and it has embraced this landscaping aesthetic and is just a great city, and it uses a lot less water to do that.”
Flick said he expects the “brown grass to be a badge of honor” soon.
“It’s like – I’m making my contribution 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 a status symbol.”