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Rethinking Our Lawns In Utah

Drought Incoming

According to the governor of Utah, we’re about to enter a pretty serious drought. Soil moisture levels are at the lowest they’ve been since we started recording them thanks to a very dry autumn season. This means that what rain we do get will be absorbed by the soil instead of going into our reservoirs, which will make the drought even worse. While all this is happening, there is a years-long plan being drafted to construct a water pipeline from Lake Powell (already suffering record lows) to Washington County that will cost anywhere from 1 to 2 billion dollars.

These conditions are so bad the governor considers them worthy of a state of emergency. Tight water restrictions are already being planned before the summer heat even hits. While the drought is seriously concerning, I would like to propose an alternative to many of the options currently on offer: rethinking our lawns.

Rethinking Our Lawns

Ever since I talked to CV Lawn King, a lawn care company in Cache Valley, about the prospect of Xeriscaping, it’s been on my mind. I even went on to write a further article on this very site about how to do it. What I have been surprised to learn is that in many places around the United States, even here in Utah, where drought is a constant concern (because we live in a desert), it’s not always allowed. It’s not specifically outlawed, but many cities mandate that all lawns must have a certain amount of grass on them. Sometimes this is mandated by actual law, but just as often, it’s in bylaws enforced by Home Owners’ Associations.

Water Conservation Vs. HOA

70% of Utah's water goes to this!HOAs are of the devil, if you ask my opinion – or at least of the devil’s cousin, Adrien. I get that we all want neighborhoods to look nice and have good property values, but the problem is that what HOAs tend to define as “looking nice” is very arbitrary. They frequently fail to meet the reality of the world we live in. The biggest barrier to drought resistant landscaping and other water conservation focused lawn care in Utah tends to be HOAs and their determination to hold to the vision of a large, and perfectly green lawn.

It’s time to start having this conversation in earnest, because the multi-billion dollar price tag of ignoring water conservation really is not acceptable. In times of extreme drought, can we really continue to spend 70% of our water use on a lawn? When there are other options, I really think not.

Why Do We Even Have Grass Lawns?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we cover our lawns with grass? There’s a fascinating article I came across that details the history of the lawn, if you really want the full details. The important detail, however, is this one quote here: “The idea of the English landscape garden was to show that the owners could afford to devote vast amounts of highly valuable land to purely aesthetic purposes.”

That’s right, we have grassy lawns because rich people wanted to show off how rich they were. You’d be surprised how much of the nonsense of modern living comes from this, but that’s a whole different story. The point is that large, grassy lawns are a product of vanity. What started with wanting to show off how wasteful we could afford to be has evolved into the default vision of the aesthetically pleasing lawn. But with severe droughts becoming more common all across the US, it’s not something we can afford anymore.

Alternatives

xeriscaping for water conservation in Texas
An example of Xeriscaping in Texas, Photo by Michael Barera

I have to ask why we must cling to this notion of a large grassy lawn? For the aesthetics? I propose xeriscaping as an alternative because it demonstrates how minimizing the use of grass can also be quite pleasing to look at. This is an alternative landscaping style that uses native and low water plants and minimal grass to create a good looking lawn that requires minimal care and sees minimal water consumption to maintain. It’s by no means the only way to reduce water use, merely the most extremely efficient. As pointed out in my previous article on the subject, when Turkey implemented this practice across entire cities, they saw a 60% reduction in water use and saved as much as $2 million per city. Think about how much money and water that saved!

Time To Put Water Conservation First

One of the things you learn when you become an adult is that you can’t have everything you want. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to learn, anyway. Life is a constant management of what you want against what you need and what you can afford. Water is a precious resource and we need it for things like drinking and living. As water shortages and droughts become more common, we cannot keep valuing things that consume huge amounts of water and serve no purpose other than aesthetics. Water conservation needs to take a top priority here.

This means that it’s time to start rethinking the lawn. It’s possible to have a beautiful lawn that isn’t covered in water-hogging grass. Make no mistake, grass is always a water hog, no matter what variety you plant. When there are many alternatives to large, grassy lawns, which still look just as good, but use only the tiniest fraction of water, why are we sticking with the option that wastes so much? Water may be a renewable resource, but it’s not found in all places in equal amounts. Here in Utah, water will always be in short supply. We can’t continue to live in this area while using as much water as we do. There just isn’t enough water to go around. It’s time to start making some changes.