That Giant Sucking Sound? It’s Your Lawn

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) could not have predicted this summer’s heat wave when they chose July as the month to release their new report on outdoor water use in California (or maybe they did—it’s not hard to predict a warming trend these days), but the timing could not have been better. It’s not just the power grid that gets strained by weeks and weeks of record-breaking heat. Our water supply can be depleted, too. And as Ellen Hanak and Matthew Davis point out in their report, “Lawns and Water Demand in California,” our state is behind the curve when it comes to creative alternatives for thirsty lawns.

The report, which you can find in the Publications section of, offers a few shocking facts and fodder for hours of stimulating cocktail party talk. Consider the following:

In California, outdoor watering accounts for 42% of all residential water use. In inland areas, where most of the population growth is taking place, that figure is closer to half. The heat is partly to blame for this increase in consumption, but larger lots also demand more irrigation.

The forecasted increase in outdoor watering in California–if no changes are made–is 1.2 million acre feet per year, enough to provide water to 4.8 million people.

California lawns are still dominated by thirsty cool-season turf grasses even though more drought-tolerant warm-season options are available.


So what’s the answer? PPIC proposes four strategies, all of which could be adopted by local jurisdictions or made into law at the state level. But some of them are simple changes that you can make at home.
Put a higher price tag on water. All right, you’re not going to voluntarily pay more for water, but many communities are moving away from a flat rate or a single-tier system for water rates. You’ve probably noticed that if your electricity and gas consumption rises beyond a certain level, your rates go up. The more you use, the more you pay. The idea is that if you use just enough water to meet your family’s basic needs, you’ll pay a pretty low rate. But if you use much more than that, the rate jumps up.

Install “smart” irrigation systems. Have you ever seen an automatic irrigation system running in the rain? A smart system automatically adjusts according to weather patterns and even the amount of plant cover. (A densely-planted garden needs less water because the plants shade the soil and hold water in.) The city of Irvine experimented with these systems on 33 homes that were identified as high water users, and found that they reduced their water use by 41 gallons per household per day. It can take a while to break even with one of these systems, especially if you choose a fancy one that connects to a satellite to get weather information instead of using on-site sensors, but even a modest rebate program makes this a viable option.

Reduce or eliminate lawns. Now you’re talking! This is something that any gardener can do anytime. Cities like Albuquerque and Las Vegas have legislated against lawns and in favor of xeriscapes, resulting in enormous water savings. Las Vegas has been able to reduce water use by an astonishing 76 percent by offering a ‘cash for grass’ initiative that rewards people for converting from turf to low-water choices. (Note to local leaders: that slogan might backfire on us here in Humboldt.) Still, cutting back on lawn and planting more drought-tolerant perennials, native shrubs, and ornamental grasses will reduce your water use significantly.

Require water-wise plantings. Many cities are also requiring public spaces and businesses to use only “California-friendly” plants, and they’re asking residential developers to include drought-tolerant plants into their plans. There are plenty of tough, good-looking plants that work well on median strips, in parking lots, and in front yards, so shifting from thirstier ornamentals to plants that can take a typical California summer is a good idea.

It’s not easy to hear that California need to follow the example of Las Vegas, a city not exactly known for its conservationist philosophy. But there’s something we can learn from neighboring desert states, even if we live in a forest. If you stop watering now, and something in your garden dies before fall, maybe it’s time to think about replacing it. Fall is the best time to plant trees, shrubs, and other perennials, because they need the winter to get established. Put your garden to the test, and let me know how it does.


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