Californian City Considers Buying back lawns to save water

How ‘green’ is your lawn? The City of Fresno in California think’s not very ‘green’ at all and is proposing to ‘buy back’ lawns from home owners in an effort to stop people pouring the States’ precious water resources all over them. This is part of an Urban Water Management Plan approved by the Fresno City Council last month. The Assistant Director or Public Utilities, Garth Gaddy, said he could see the City paying $9 or $10 a square foot to homeowners who sign contracts saying they won’t reinstall lawns.

Given that Fresno’s peak water usage during the winter, when most residential sprinkler systems are shut off, is approximately one third of what it is in the summer, this makes good economic and environmental sense. In a City with an expanding population based, it’s a cheap of way of not having to find, treat and deliver new water.
Those “cash for grass” type programs are growing in popularity, said Jennifer Persike, public affairs director for the Association of California Water Agencies.

In Minnesota people were also concerned with the environmental footprint of lawns and enacted the Phosphorus Lawn Fertilizer Law to restrict application of phosphorus fertilizers to prevent nutrient enrichment of their lakes and rivers. While they are the only state so far in the US to enact such a law, the Province of Manitoba in Canada has just followed suit and enacted a similar law.

In addition to a plentiful supply of water and fertilizer, any home owner worth his salt knows that it’s only right and proper to give his lawn a good dose of herbicide every now to keep any insolent daisies at bay. This practice too however is coming under pressure, with several municipalities across North America enacting by-laws to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides and herbicides to protect the environment.

The solution to all of this? Jim Hagedorn, the CEO of and Chair of ScottsMiracle-Gro thinks it genetically modified grass. ‘When it comes to grass, people worry about watering, maintenance, and weeds, three headaches that genetic engineering – transgenic turf – could dramatically alleviate. “That’s the big kahuna for consumer lawns,” he says. “Solve those three issues and you’re a friggin’ hero!”
Nearly 50,000 square miles of the continental US is covered by lawn, according to estimates by ecologists at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Using satellite and aerial imagery, the team calculated that irrigated grass covers three times more land in the US than irrigated corn does. That makes turf the nation’s most widespread irrigated crop.
Lawn care and gardening is also the most popular outdoor leisure activity in the country, and the global industry supporting it generates an estimated $7 billion a year. ScottsMiracle-Gro accounts for more than a third of that – $2.4 billion in 2005.

It’s safe to say that no other nation commits even a fraction of the land, resources, chemicals, and water that the US does in pursuit of the perfect greensward.
So how did such a wholly unsustainable practice become so deep rooted in the fabric of suburbia? In American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, historian Ted Steinberg traces it to three factors: 1. Indoor plumbing, 2. Suburbia, and 3. Clever marketing on the part of the lawn care industry.

The lawn care industry saw tens of thousands of men returning from the war to a society where leisure time was increasing. These men, disciplined by military service, were looking for something to do in their spare time, so the lawn care industry gave it to them. Through their marketing efforts, they convinced people that clover and various other weeds were ‘enemies’ to be ‘eradicated’. Prior to the late 1950s, most lawns were a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass and clover. It was an ideal mix because of clover’s ability to take nitrogen out of the air and self fertilize the lawn. However this cut into sales of nitrogen fertilizers, so the lawn care industry decided the clover had to go. This created a market for both nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides in one fell swoop.

In the article ‘Turf Warrior’ David Wolman reports that all that vegetation does however have some environmental benefit. According to the NASA group, lawns collectively absorb some 12 billion pounds of carbon each year – effectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And if that grass weren’t there, much more soil would run off into storm drains, waterways, and rivers, polluting reservoirs and hastening the erosion of hillsides and valuable farmland.

So maybe hold off on concreting that lawn, cut back on the water, hold the fertilizer, embrace those daisies and at the risk of being burned as a heretic, consider some GMO grass???

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. He lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

10 replies
  1. keenspoon
    keenspoon says:

    This is California idiocy. Typical. You want to conserve water – add a tax so the price doubles. People will cut off and get rid of their lawns, new homes will be more efficient and you won't need to build a bureaucracy to to determine the reward and then make sure people who say they will reduce actually continue to do so. Someone could agree, take the payment and then reinstall.Oh and the tax could exempt the first x amount so water need for a typical household (as opposed to pools and lawns) would not be high priced. Oh and it would provide revenue which the state actually needs rather than add costs for enforcement and monitoring.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I agree with the above comment, but for a different reason. The more lawns removed the greater amount of CO2. Lawns use reduce CO2 and they help cool the air in the summer which reduces Air conditioning power bills which reduces pollution. These guys need to think throuth the whole process.

  3. Arthur
    Arthur says:

    There's lots of good stuff in this blog, and it's not idiocy at all. There are a couple of misguided parts, though. The suggestion that if you don't have a lawn, the only thing to do is pave – that's silly. And genetically modified grass is the answer – that's silly too.The word you're looking for is xeriscaping – replacing the lawn with what's appropriate for the climate, without the need for extra irrigation, herbicides, fertilizers, or polluting mowers and other machines.

  4. Christina
    Christina says:

    keenspoon,One problem with your idea… Fresno (which is the topic of the article) doesn't use water meters. Any house built after a certain date HAS one, but older homes don't and no one is billed according to their actual usage.As a resident of Fresno who is very water conscious, I see stars every time I see water running down the gutter because of over watering. Another problem would be enforcement… Also, Fresno's summer is so hot and I expect that cementing over our lawns won't help that much…I'd much rather see water meters than this back lawn program…

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The twelve billion pounds of CO2 is a silly number no matter where it came from. You cut the grass, the clippings decay, putting the CO2 right back in the air. Te grass itself is CO2 neutral because it does not sequester the carbon for any length of time.What makes a lawn so horribly negative is the power and chemicals used to maintain it.ALCUL8R

  6. Paul O' Callagh
    Paul O' Callagh says:

    Xeriscaping is a good idea in principle, though if people try this and dont know how to Xeriscape, they can actually end up using MORE water, not less believe it or not. At least I have seen that reported for a trial carried out in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Believe it or not, there is a desert in the middle of BC! – despite the reputation for rain. Re Water Metering – people often debate the cost benefit of water metering, though aside from simply charging for water, there are HUGE other benefits, you can more accurately track leaks, lost water, this helps out with water conservation, and the water you dont lose, is water saved.

  7. Paul O' Callaghan
    Paul O' Callaghan says:

    Xeriscaping is a good idea in principle, though if people try this and dont know how to Xeriscape, they can actually end up using MORE water, not less believe it or not. At least I have seen that reported for a trial carried out in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Believe it or not, there is a desert in the middle of BC! – despite the reputation for rain. Re Water Metering – people often debate the cost benefit of water metering, though aside from simply charging for water, there are HUGE other benefits, you can more accurately track leaks, lost water, this helps out with water conservation, and the water you dont lose, is water saved.

  8. synthetic grass
    synthetic grass says:

    I live in Minnesota and because water is becoming more and more restricted for lawn care, I am seeing a lot of people deciding to put synthetic turf because of how little maintenance it acutally requires. I own a turf company and over the past year and half, business has been surging. I do think its sad that our planet is 70% water, yet we cant seem to find an efficient way to utilize it to optimal use.

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