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.