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Lawns Are a Major Drain on California’s Water Supply

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Aired 4/19/09

If you look outside your front window, chances are you’d see a lot of green lawns -- especially if you live in the suburbs. But in a climate with little rain, and hot dry summers, should we be seeing green? Joanne Faryon has more.

It could be the ultimate measure of suburban superiority. This lush, plush, dense, immense, green plot of grass. The lawn neighbors envy and home-owners covet.

But getting it this green takes more than an over-achieving home-owner armed with fertilizer and weed killer.

Eberhardt: It takes water. Gallons and gallons and gallons.

Just ask Marty Eberhardt at the water conservation garden at Cuyamaca College.

Eberhardt: It’s not very well cared for, the irrigation hits the fence.

This patch of grass isn’t even very nice or green or big, but look at how much water it uses.

Eberhardt: It uses, if you look down here, 28,000 gallons of water each year.

Project Envision San Diego

Rancho Bernardo Athletic Director Peggy Brose

Web movie: Rancho Bernardo Athletic Director Peggy Brose

Above: Rancho Bernardo Athletic Director Peggy Brose says cutting the water bill is just one benefit of artificial turf. Video shot by Erica Simpson and edited by Joe Spurr. | View on Google Video

It adds up. In 2005 a NASA scientist used satellite images to measure the 60-million or so lawns across America and came up with 40-million acres of grass soaking up 19 trillion gallons of water every year.

Grass is the largest single irrigated crop in the country. In San Diego County, it is among the largest single uses of water.

Michel: What frustrates me, our grass is green. I’m not seeing any water restrictions where if you go to Colorado, you can’t water your grass.

Suzanne Michel is an adjunct geography professor at Cuyamaca College.

She says San Diego County is in an ecological water crisis, yet we continue to pour our most valuable resource on to our lawns and flowers. Sixty per cent of all water use in the county, residential and industrial, goes to outdoor landscaping.

Michel: I am the only person on my block of about 15 homes that has native plants and drought tolerant plants. Nobody else does, everybody else has a lawn.

Marty Eberhardt spends a lot of her time trying to undo people’s fixation on lawns. Here at the water conservation garden, she points out alternatives to grass and water guzzling plants. More patio, more mulch and more native plants all save water.

Eberhardt: It’s possible to grow anything in San Diego. It’s a wonderful climate as long as you put enough water on it, you can grow anything and so we have and it’s been great and it’s been attractive. But I personally feel that era is coming to an end and probably should come to an end.

San Diego County is classified as a Mediterranean climate -- hot dry summers and cooler wet winters. We average nine inches of rain a year. And that just isn’t enough to keep all these tropical plants blooming and all this grass green. So why are we growing it? That was a question the Las Vegas Valley Water District asked itself in 2002. They banned grass in the front yards of new developments and they now pay people to dig up their lawns.

And if water in Las Vegas was running off onto the sidewalk or down the street, like at it does at my house, it’s a $60 dollar – the first time.

The City of San Diego says it’s not ready to tell people they can’t grow grass. It’s not even ready to tell people how much they can water their grass.

Jim Barrett: Is the situation now, so severe that I must go tell people what they can or cannot do, I just don’t believe we’re there.

Jim Barrett is the director of the San Diego Water Department, and he sits on the boards of both the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District.

He believes for now, voluntary conservation is the right decision. But that’s a decision the city council has yet to make. It has not even implemented stage one of its Emergency Water Regulations. Stage one calls for voluntary conservation if a water shortage could exist.

The mayor has asked people to take “the 20 gallon challenge,” which includes encouraging people to water lawns in the evening and cut their sprinklers by one to three minutes. Doing both could save about as much as 100 gallons a day.

What’s a golf course if not green? The city operates three courses with a total of 81 holes. Even using recycled water at Torrey Pines, the golf course water bill is $900,000 a year.

And that’s another problem with pouring water on the grass – it gets expensive.

Michel: If they knew the alternatives, how it looked, I think a lot of people would jump at it, especially people that are struggling with their household income. One of the best things you can do if you need to pay your doctor, I’d rip out your grass in a heartbeat. That would be an easy decision to make.

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