Our Love Affair With Our Lawns Is Hurling the U.S. Toward Water Crisis


As energy efficiency continues to grab headlines, water efficiency needs to join ranks.

Around the world, the demand for clean water is outstripping supply, and here in America, where we're used to having easy access -- it's simply a matter of turning on the faucet -- it's easy to feel immune. But with 36 states anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013, the question is no longer if we're going to face a problem but when.

This is already apparent in America's two largest agricultural states, California and Texas. Central Texas suffered from extreme drought last summer, leading to $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses. And California, which produces more than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts, is suffering its third consecutive year of drought -- a drought so severe both the governor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have declared a state of emergency.

But California and Texas are hardly alone. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Montana and even Hawaii -- which is often synonymous with lush, tropical rain, face worsening drought.

And if that's not bad enough, the Great Lakes are shrinking. While the majority of the nation's fresh water goes to agricultural and industrial use, outdoor residential water use is a big problem we have been slow to address, particularly in California, the country's most populous state and where the state's largest reservoirs are drying up, intensifying the tension between dwindling supply and rising demand.

"Whenever we had water issues in the past, we used to think, 'let's just build more pipelines.' But now we're concerned with what's happening on the other side of the pipe," said William Rose, water conservation program executive at San Diego County Water Authority, which initiated the "20 Gallon Challenge," a regional campaign to promote voluntary water conservation.

Launched last year, and relaunched in September due to ongoing drought, the campaign's goal was to save 20 gallons per person, per day, which represents a 10 percent reduction in overall water use.

But despite fairly aggressive media ads, "and good evidence people got the message," Rose said, the campaign only achieved a 5 percent reduction in water use -- roughly two flushes of the toilet per household. "We have a long-term issue here. We really need to rethink water."

San Diego, with a population of 3.1 million, ships 54 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and an additional 30 percent comes from upstate reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains feeds into the reservoirs, but due to climate change, there has been 39 percent less snowfall, according to the Department of Water Resources, seriously impacting what happens downstream.

According to Water Smart, a program launched by Southern California's Metropolitan Water District, residential water consumption is the largest contributor to California's urban water use -- more than 2.2 trillion gallons of water per year, or half the annual flow of the Colorado River.

With resources drying up, cities like San Diego and certainly Los Angeles -- essentially a coastal desert, with a population of 21 million expected to reach 33 million by 2020 -- are feeling the squeeze.

As a first step, the 20 Gallon Challenge set up a voucher program and installed 500,000 new low-flush toilets, which use 1.6 gallons per flush compared to the 3.5 to 7 gallons of toilets of yesteryear.

Nationwide, an increasing number of cities have been offering similar retrofit or rebate programs to replace toilets, as well as washing machines and other water-using appliances, because it leads to substantial savings in both water and money.

In fact, the savings are so significant, on his blog, Peter Gleick, founder of Oakland, Calif.'s Pacific Institute, a nonprofit known for its work around sustainable water resources, called for Congress to provide $2 billion for an emergency "Cash for Water Clunkers" program and a comparable program for farmers to replace their irrigation systems.

For example, last year, the EPA, which sponsors WaterSense, a program promoting water-efficient products, found that consumers who installed WaterSense-labeled toilets, faucets and faucet accessories saved more than 9.3 billion gallons of water.

According to Rob Zimmerman, senior staff engineer of Water Conservation Initiatives at Kohler Co., which manufactures kitchen and bath products, if a family of four changed to high-efficiency toilets, showerheads and faucets, it would save an estimated 39,000 gallons of water a year -- the equivalent of 230,000 20-ounce bottles of drinking water, not to mention the money saved from using less water.

But Zimmerman cautioned this is only a first step: "Replacing your toilet is not enough. We still have to deal with this issue on a broader, societal basis."

This is exactly what San Diego has found, which is why this year the 20 Gallon Challenge shifted its focus from indoor water usage to outdoors.

"We water about twice as much as we need to," said Rose, who estimates 60 percent of the county's residential water use goes to hosing down thirsty grass, which is not indigenous to this semi-arid region, nor is turf grass indigenous anywhere in the United States.

And it's actually this, the American fascination with lawns, that is proving one of the greatest challenges to residential water conservation.

For much of American history, lawns were considered a luxury only the wealthy could afford. But post-World War II, a prosperous time marked by rising consumerism, an exodus to the suburbs and social conformity, the lawn aesthetic blossomed.

According to Ted Steinberg, who wrote Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, lawns became the ultimate symbol of the self-made individual. They also complemented the American work ethic for, uneasy with free time on our hands, those little green expanses offered the perfect place for us to keep busy, all in the name of relaxing.

Now, several generations later, having a lawn has become a social statement so ingrained in the national psyche that we spend $40 billion annually, roughly the gross domestic product of Vietnam, on our lawns. And we pump in $10 billion worth of pesticides and fertilizers keeping it green.

"A lot of urban water demand is due to excessive lawn watering," said Amy Vickers, who runs an international consulting practice specializing in water conservation in Amherst, Mass., and who wrote the water-efficiency requirements for plumbing fixtures adopted under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992.

The facts bear out. According to a 2007 Forbes article quoting a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, using satellite data to study the effects of urbanization, lawns are America's largest irrigated crop -- we have 63,240 square miles under cultivation -- and we use roughly 19 trillion gallons of water annually to care for them.

According to Wendy Martin, drought coordinator at the California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento, the state is aware that a significant portion of water use per capita is for outdoor landscaping: "The challenge is people place a high value in landscaping, and there are certain societal standards, whether implied or real, that a lawn represents an affluent lifestyle. We're attempting to change that, because we see it as the biggest opportunity to see dramatic conservation."

However, California has been slow to act, failing to mandate water schedules -- exactly where Vickers draws the line.

"I'm not talking about living in a world of Luddite rules and limitations, but when you look at communities that set limits on how they use water, you see excellent water savings," Vickers said, citing Florida, where 3 of its 5 water-management districts have imposed mandatory cutbacks, limiting lawn watering to once or twice a week, which Vickers argues is still generous.

Nationwide, there are dozens of examples: San Antonio and Austin, Texas, restrict lawn watering to once a week, even for golf courses, and Austin issues first-time violators with a fine, not a warning.

"The single thing that will most dramatically reduce outdoor irrigation is limiting the number of days you can water, period. California's water saving goals are anemic," Vickers said. "On a policy level, the state has failed to get tough on excessive lawn irrigation."

Perhaps it's time California looked to its neighbors. In Las Vegas, in the heart of the desert, locals have been relinquishing their lawns in order to save precious water.

In Vegas, where the population continues to swell, growing from 1.4 million to 2 million in eight years according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, 90 percent of the city's water supply comes from Colorado River.

"It's like having most of your eggs in one basket, only the basket isn't in great shape," Doug Bennett, conservation manager with the South Nevada Water Authority, said. Las Vegas, renowned for its glamorous neon excess, has been spurred to critical action by its very dependency.

According to Bennett, 70 percent of local residential water use goes into landscaping. Since 2003, the city has prohibited commercial buildings from using turf grass and residential homes from having front lawns. To encourage people to convert to desert-appropriate landscape, the city issued rebates, sometimes as much as $2 per square foot of turf, to woo reticent consumers who, jokes Bennett, assumed water-efficient landscaping meant having a wagon wheel surrounded by rocks and a cactus.

The South Nevada Water Authority has completed 30,000 rebate projects, and a recent five-year study showed savings of 75 percent water per square foot.

However, getting folks to change required aggressive incentives, accompanied by legislation and enforcement. According to Bennett, the greatest initial barrier wasn't actually money, but social perception.

"When I moved onto my street 10 years ago, every house had a lawn out front, with a tree in the middle of it. Of course working in the water industry, I ripped everything out and started retrofitting. But I was very aware of the perception, 'What will the neighbors think?' that stopped others from doing it."

But now, the tables have turned. Bennett cites a recent study the SNWA conducted on new owners of previously foreclosed homes, which don't qualify for lawn rebates, and 7 out of 8 opted for water-efficient landscape despite no financial incentive. "This indicates there's been a change in the community ethic. It's now a widely accepted principle," he said.

When it comes to losing the lawn, there is definitely human psychology at play, because like it or not, we frequently bend to peer pressure. Famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram proved this in an experiment where one subject, on a busy street corner, gazed into the sky for 60 seconds. Most onlookers ignored him. But when four people looked skyward, the number of bystanders doing the same quadrupled.

Similarly, in an experiment outlined by the Hunting Dynasty, a British ad agency promoting clients with sustainable products, an upscale Phoenix hotel showed guests 1 of 4 information cards encouraging them to be green. One asked guests to help save the environment, the second to help save resources, the third to partner with the hotel to save the environment, and the fourth to join other guests in helping to save the environment, followed by information stating that the majority of hotel guests recycled towels during their stay.

The fourth message was 26 percent more effective, proving that our individual actions are often influenced by the collective norm. In other words, when more people do it, we're more likely to do it, too.

But even so, once people change their behavior, maintaining that change also proves a challenge.

"You have to constantly reinforce the message," said Mellissa Elliott, manager of conservation at Denver Water, which has an aggressive conservation plan to reduce the region's overall water use 22 percent by 2016.

The utility, which serves 1.3 million people, has conducted studies that show after communities make significant emergency changes in how they use water, when the crisis is over, usage creeps back up, "unless conservation becomes a habit," says Elliott.

This is why the utility developed its current marketing campaign, "Use Only What You Need," as its rallying conservation cry.

"Unfortunately, water conservation isn't breaking news, but we have to keep beating the drum," said Elliott, who explains the campaign uses guerilla marketing tactics, such as during a halftime game between Colorado State Univeristy and the Univeristy of Colorado, when a toilet "mascot" from Denver Water ran across the field and was tackled by a securituy guard. The message: Running toilets waste water.

Or the utility's recent campaign, "Grass is Dumb," which has a set of several billboards, one reading: "Grass is Dumb. Water 2 minutes less. Your lawn won't notice."

"Our research shows that if you ask people to conserve, they feel it's a sacrifice, it's too preachy. But when you ask them to use what they need, you're asking them to use it wisely -- and they do. They're laughing, but they're also getting the message that water's important."

Perhaps Georgia should keep this in mind or face a sharp learning curve. The state recently announced its three-year drought was over, lifting outdoor water restrictions, even though water levels in Lake Lanier are too low to support recreational uses.

When it comes to safeguarding our water supplies, crucial work remains to be done. Making conservation a social norm is not enough, nor the right starting place, according to Vickers.

"Fix the infrastructure, that's number one. That has to get solved if we want to be serious about our water issues," she said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, water leakages from aging infrastructure total 1.7 trillion gallons per year, an average loss of 15 to 20 percent of finished drinking water. So asking consumers to conserve while aging delivery systems continue to leak isn't going to help us save water -- not on the scale we need to.

"Public education is essential, but if it's the only thing we're counting on, we're in big trouble," Vickers said.

Emily Wurth, water campaign manager at Food and Water Watch, the Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to ensuring clean water and safe food, concurred.

"We're dealing with really old systems, leakages, sewage overflows and water main breaks like those in Los Angeles and Baltimore," she said. In Los Angeles, there have been 34 blowouts or burst water mains since Sept. 1, flooding streets and buckling pavement -- this, during a state declared drought. "This is poor water management. We couldn't agree more with policies that include efficient conservation practices. But we need to devote more funding to infrastructure, particularly green infrastructure, to make an impact."

Bennett, who is hosting the Water Smart Innovations conference in Las Vegas Oct. 7-9, said conserving and protecting our water supplies is a lengthy process. The conference, the largest in the world on urban water efficiency and only in its second year, brings commercial, manufacturing and government sectors together. It attracted 1,500 attendees last year.

"When it comes to climate change and conserving water, technology and innovation hold great potential. But thinking technology will solve all our problems is an even greater threat. It's a process."

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