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San Diegans Using Synthetic Grass To Conserve Water

But Some Critics Say Artificial Turf Hurts The Environment

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Drought and the increasing cost of water are reasons many San Diegans are pulling up their lawns and switching to alternatives like drought-tolerant plants and water-wise landscapes. One alternative is synthetic grass, but not everyone agrees it's the best choice.

Drought and the increasing cost of water are reasons many San Diegans are pulling up their lawns and switching to alternatives like drought-tolerant plants and water-wise landscapes. One alternative some people are using is synthetic grass, but not everyone agrees it's the best choice.

San Diegans spend a lot of time and money maintaining lawns. They also use a lot of water keeping those lush lawns green, but not Alpine homeowner Diane Barnaba.

Barnaba removed the natural grass in the front and backyard of her home. She replaced it with 750 square feet of synthetic grass.

"With the real grass, there was lots of gopher holes, tons of dirt, big dirt mounds," said Barnaba. "And although the dirt was great for plants it wasn't good for the yard. And then the biggest thing probably besides the gophers, were the rabbits. We had tons of rabbits coming in in the morning and at night grazing, eating all the grass down to the nub."

Barnaba re-landscaped the property four years ago, adding drought-tolerant plants, rock garden beds and the synthetic grass which covers a small section of her front yard and a portion of her backyard. She said the move has cut her water bills in half.

"And my husband's back was saved quite a bit because he didn't have to mow and weedwhack," said a laughing Barnaba.

Barnaba bought her synthetic grass from the Escondido-based company Easy Turf.

Easy Turf Regional Sales Manager Mark Radeke said the company's Field Turf product is a good substitute for natural grass.

"Our turf is extremely environmentally-friendly," said Radeke. "The infill for instance is, it's crumb rubber, it's recycled tires. For instance, to do a football field it takes 100,000 recycled tires. That's 100,000 tires that aren't sitting in a landfill somewhere. Plus the whole product is 100 percent recyclable. Besides that you're not putting nitrates, fertilizers, things like that into the ground. So it really is the perfect green alternative."

The recycled tires are used for cushioning.

Radeke said the synthetic green polyethylene grass blades are lead and toxic-free. Polyethylene is a type of plastic, the same material used in grocery bags.

He said the artificial turf gets a bit warm on days when the temperature reaches 90 degrees or higher. But a spritz of water on the synthetic grass with a hose drops that heat, at least temporarily.

Radeke also said the Field Turf is porous, so it allows water to soak through to the ground.

He said the average cost is roughly $8 to $14 per square foot depending on the type of turf, ground preparation and access issues.

Radeke said business has been brisk for the company in the past three years as the cost of water has climbed.

Some critics, however, argue an increase in artificial turf is bad for the environment.

"To me, artificial grass is just artificial," said Nan Sterman. "It doesn't belong in a garden. It's outdoor carpeting."

Sterman is the author of two books on California gardening and a proponent of drought-tolerant landscapes.

"Grass has some advantages," said Sterman. "Grass does take carbon out of the air, grass does cool the air, it does filter runoff and rainwater, etc. We just don't have enough natural rainfall to keep it going without a lot of artificial means. So, if you can't keep grass going without artificial means, why have artificial grass? It doesn't serve any purpose other than being a green carpet."

Sterman recommends using drought-tolerant plants and a combination of soil and other ground covering instead of synthetic or natural grass.

Dylan Edwards manages the Ocean Friendly Gardens program for the Surfrider Foundation. He said artificial turf does help conserve water, but Surfrider is concerned about runoff.

"But underneath that synthetic turf you have this really unhealthy compacted soil," said Edwards. "And so the rainwater comes down, hits the synthetic turn, a chunk of it gets absorbed. But a vast majority of it runs off into the streets and into the gully's, the storm drains and ultimately into the oceans."

He also said the turf absorbs sunlight.

"It's a petroleum product and that has some CO2 emissions related to it," said Edwards. "It also absorbs a ton of the heat from the sunlight here in San Diego. What it's actually working to do is creating this little heat island around our city. And, of course, that contributes a little bit to the overall global warming picture, but also forces folks to run up their air conditioning a little bit more."

Edwards said drought-tolerant and climate-appropriate plants are a better option because they absorb carbon and release oxygen.

For Diane Barnaba of Alpine and other homeowners, the synthetic turf preserves a slice of traditional green.

"The issue was mainly having the grass that felt real, I mean that was huge for me. And so having that and having a beautiful yard and not having to worry about a water bill especially nowadays, there was no question. I love it, it's perfect."

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