Some Sacramentans let their lawns die, but city says that’s not necessary

Jerry let his lawn turn brown, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to.

Around the state Capitol, expanses of grass are dead or dormant. The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown let the lawns die to make a point to residents during a historic drought, said Brian Ferguson, deputy director for public affairs at the state Department of General Services, which maintains the Capitol grounds.

Among the desiccated areas is a large square of dried grass and dirt at the Capitol’s signature west entrance.

“It’s California’s front yard,” Ferguson said. “We’re trying to set an example in our front yard of what (residents) can do in their front yards.”

Some in the Sacramento area have followed suit by letting their lawns die. On South Land Park Drive, Michael Geminder’s lawn turned brown over the course of several months after he turned off his sprinklers. Recently, he had the grass cut out altogether. Geminder and his girlfriend also have started putting buckets in the shower to capture water for plants.

“There’s only so much water, and using it for something like a green lawn feels like an awkward decision to me,” he said.

Other residents continue to soak their lawns to an emerald green as summer temperatures soar. Many are obeying requirements to reduce water consumption by 20 percent or more in the cities of Sacramento, Folsom and Roseville.

The city of Sacramento currently limits residents to running their lawn sprinklers two days a week, which should be enough to keep lawns alive and green, according to landscaping and water experts. Letting lawns die is a personal choice, not an imperative, they said, but ignoring the watering restrictions is irresponsible and could lead to firmer limits if it doesn’t rain soon.

“If 2015 is a dry year, we could find ourselves in a catastrophic situation,” said Tom Gohring, executive director of the Water Forum, a group of local governments and water agencies that promotes sustainable water use in the Sacramento region.

“If it starts raining like crazy in November, we’ll be fine, but there’s no guarantee that will happen,” Gohring said. “Climate and tree-ring records show this part of California has experienced not just multiyear but multidecade droughts in the past.”

Conserving water now is the best way to plan for the worst, he said.

That doesn’t mean your lawn must die, experts said. Established lawns require surprisingly little water to keep them alive, if only in a dormant state. A turf study by the University of Illinois concluded that lawns need at least a one-third of an inch of water every three weeks for roots to survive.

“The turf won’t be green and lush (in summer), but it will recover quickly when more water and cooler conditions return” in the fall, the university said in its lawn-care recommendations.

About an inch of water once a week will keep a lawn green if the temperature is under 85 degrees, university researchers said. If it’s hotter, the lawn will need about twice as much water. Typical sprinklers put out about a half-inch of water in five minutes, studies show, meaning a green lawn can be maintained with as little as two short waterings each week.

Steve Linton, manager of Green Acres Nursery & Supply in Folsom, suggests a different, though still conservative, watering routine.

Lawns can absorb only so much water in a short time, he said. Run your sprinklers and see how long it takes for water to seep into the gutter. If it takes only a few minutes, watering any longer is a waste. Instead, Linton said, residents should set their automatic sprinklers to come on for three to five minutes every two hours, for instance at 2 a.m., 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., he said. That way all the water is absorbed.

Infrequent watering, perhaps a couple of times a week, is better than daily drenching because it encourages deeper root growth, and deeper roots help grass deal with stress from heat and drought, Linton said.

“You have to get water to penetrate deeply so the roots follow,” he said.

Thoughtful water use is the key to getting through periods of drought, said David Groenfeldt, director of the Water-Culture Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., and author of “Water Ethics: A Values Approach to Solving the Water Crisis.”

Groenfeldt, an anthropologist by training, compared careful water use to the practices of Masai herdsmen in east Africa. The Masai will draw blood from a cow’s neck to drink, but not so much that they harm the cow.

“We should feel good about exploiting nature in a healthy way,” he said.

Right now, the arid West has a culture of profligate water use, not careful husbandry like that practiced by the Masai, Groenfeldt said. Farmers, for example, should draw water from underground aquifers during droughts, but not during wetter years, he said. That way they could build up a store of groundwater to tap during drought.

“This is when farmers should be pumping from the aquifer,” Groenfeldt said. “It shouldn’t already be depleted as it is now.”

Homeowners should think about replacing lawns, which aren’t the best use of water, with drought-tolerant landscapes, he said.

Using water wisely means making choices about which uses should be prioritized – lawns vs. water for fish, for example – not simply saying everyone has to make drastic cuts, Groenfeldt said. “I don’t want water ethics to always be saying ‘no, no no,’ ” he said. “Water is so precious, we should enjoy it more.”

To say that people who kill their lawns are “good” and those who overwater are “bad” misses the point, he said. Strong public policy – and adequate sanctions to enforce it – is the best way to make sure that both humans and nature benefit from existing water supplies, he said.

“The onus of responsibility is partly with the individual, but I like laying responsibility for those larger issues with the state or society,” Groenfeldt said. “We need to set better rules and better boundaries for ourselves.”

In Sacramento, officials say watering restrictions and enforcement helped reduce water use by 17 percent in June compared with the same period last year. The city has received thousands of complaints about residents who water incorrectly and has issued hundreds of citations, said Terrance Davis, the city’s sustainability manager.

“The number of violations and number of complaints has gone up exponentially since last year,” Davis said. “The word is getting out there.”

On watering days – Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday – consumption is much higher than on non-watering days, he said.

On Monday, June 9, a non-watering day, city residents used 115 million gallons of water. On that Tuesday, they used 135 million gallons, he said.

The trends show people are generally complying with watering requirements, drastically reducing water consumption, he said.

Still, Davis said, it takes time to change people’s behavior. Sacramento residents, living at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, are used to enjoying ample water.

Many don’t even know how to operate their sprinkler controllers. “People set it and forget it,” he said. Staff members will come out to help residents who dial the city’s call center at 311, he said.

“We’re not advocating people kill their front lawn,” Davis said. “Two days a week, your lawn will survive.”

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