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Let’s Talk About Turf

Now that we have survived another hot, dry summer and are firmly in the fall season, it is time to turn off the irrigation systems and take a moment to think about lawns.

Outdoor water use can be a significant part of a household’s total water use, especially if the home has an irrigation system.  Homes with irrigation systems can use 50% to 100% more water on average than homes where someone manually irrigates with a hose and/or sprinkler.

What Cities Can Do

A new study from the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M shows that 46.6% of municipal water use is for “urban irrigation”, defined as lawns and golf courses.  This amounts to 2.262 million acre-feet of water and 12.6% of the annual water demand in Texas – just for outdoor landscapes.  Using large volumes of water for this purpose is not something we can afford to keep doing in Texas – it isn’t sustainable.

The majority of this demand occurs during the hottest and driest time of the year.  It is important to note our water supply systems and treatment capacity must to be built to meet that “peak demand” even though it is not needed much of the year.  This is a cost that could be avoided if reducing outdoor watering is taken seriously.

The choice for cities facing water shortages now or in the future is clear: invest in expensive new water supplies or invest in programs to reduce water use, including outdoor water use.  Several smart Texas cities chose the latter.  San Antonio Water System provides rebates to customers who agree to reduce their turf grass and to replace it with plants from an approved drought-tolerant plant list.  They even provide a handy design plan and plant list for those who need design help.  The City of Austin offers $25 for every 100 square feet of healthy turf grass converted to native plant beds with a maximum rebate of $1,250.  These cities have decided that investing in water saving landscapes is a good investment towards stretching existing water supplies.

Let’s look at a city outside of Texas that has gotten serious about lawns with great results.  Doug Bennett, Water Conservation Manager with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), recently visited Texas to discuss his experiences managing water use in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.  Mr. Bennett says SNWA’s greatest opportunity for saving through water conservation lies in curbing wasteful outdoor water uses.  Focusing on outdoor water use, SNWA has put programs in place that prohibit lawns in new residential front yards and limits lawns to 50% of the landscape area in new backyards. Lawns are prohibited in new non-residential developments, and golf courses (new and existing) are required to operate within a water budget based on their irrigated acreage. By focusing on water efficiency and aggressively managing outdoor water use, SNWA customers have reduced their per capita water use by 37% since 1990. This means the population can grow by utilizing existing water supplies.

In Texas we are experiencing a severe, prolonged drought and it’s our turn to look critically at lawns.

Can Texas learn from Las Vegas?

While the Las Vegas model might not work perfectly in Texas, it’s time to put some serious thought into determining what does make sense for us. The climate in our state ranges from desert in the West to the plentiful rain of the Pineywoods in the East.  Local leaders should put rules and policies in place that promote landscape types that make sense for the area. Wide expanses of green lawns do no make sense in most parts of our state. We need to take a close look at the expectations we have about what our communities should look like and be realistic about water resource limitations.  Our outdoor landscapes need to more closely reflect the area’s climatological realities.

Some program options for water providers include:

  • Limiting the percentage of turf areas in new development landscapes
  • Provide rebates and incentives to convert water thirsty landscapes into drought tolerant landscapes
  • Implement time-of-day and day-of-week outdoor watering schedules and educate customers on how compliance with the schedule can help keep rates low and prolong water supplies
  • Educate customers on the appropriate amount of water to apply to landscapes
  • Develop irrigation system design standards that minimize waste and promote efficiency
  • Provide irrigation system audits for customers that include assistance with correctly setting controllers
  • Provide information on appropriate drought-tolerant plant and turf species for your area
  • Partner with local media such a TV and print media to communicate appropriate watering amounts based on local weather conditions

What’s the Goal?

Most residents prefer not to have a brown lawn, and luckily that isn’t necessary.  Drought resistant plants can flower year round and maintain outside beauty while still saving water.  Supplemental outdoor watering during the hottest part of the summer may be necessary (during non-drought periods), but most outdoor landscapes should be able to survive with minimal additional water for most of the year.  This is absolutely necessary if we are going to continue to provide water at an affordable rate, provide water for new Texans, bring business to our state and make sure that we have enough water to provide for environmental flow needs.  It is essential that we get this right.

Texas must take an honest look at nonessential, discretionary water use – particularly outdoor watering – and invest in reducing that drain on our water resources. Cities and their residents need to decide how much water we can afford to apply to our lawns.  Addressing outdoor water use will put us one step closer to assuring that all water needs are met, including those of the environment. We should not be put in the position of choosing lawns over preserving the natural heritage that makes Texas so special. That is a losing proposition.

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