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The time has come for California to ban front yard lawns for new homes
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

The climate change cabal in Sacramento is ignoring some extremely low hanging fruit in their bid to protect us from ourselves.

The reason they don’t see it is simple. It doesn’t involve raising taxes, rewarding corporations or disruptor greenies they align with, nor does it destroy jobs.

The California Legislature needs to ban grass lawns for front yards as well as general commercial development for all new building projects.

It is clear whether your faith is in centuries of dendrochronology — the study of tree rings — or the current take on climate change droughts are going to be a part of the western United States going forward. And even if they are not, it is clear from development patterns since 1850 as well as that of the fate of indigenous American civilizations in what is now the West that disappeared during sustained drought periods we will have perennial water shortages.

Population growth coupled with the need to feed people is clearly outpacing nature’s ability to meet the need in many years. Building more reservoirs — preferably off-stream storage like San Luis — and recharging aquifers are a must and will help but they will not be enough.

The pie chart for water use in California is roughly 50 percent for environmental needs, 40 percent for agriculture, and 10 percent for urban.

The largest slice — environmental — underscores the fact we live in an altered landscape that can’t be supported without water storage, diversion, and conservation.

Rivers would run dry, lakes would retreat, salinity in the Delta would increase, and fish numbers would plummet near the end of even a normal weather year. What is a normal fall river flow on the Sacramento River, the state’s mightiest stream of water, would be anemic at best if nature was left to its own devices.

Massive manmade reservoirs that regulate river flows have made both wet and dry season flows more predictable in addition to supplying farm and urban needs.

They also have altered ecological systems to the point we view what we see today as “natural”.

It should go without saying California has long surpassed the population level that natural conditions will support.

Against that backdrop, there is ongoing research inspiring operational changes of reservoir releases to maximize the effectiveness of water needed to keep fish population and ecological systems as close to the man’s perception as ideal supported by the massive water capturing and distribution system California has created.

Agricultural water use seems to be the most “damned” of the three.

Although there are still issues and room for improvements, study after study shows water use per acre for farming has not only dropped but yields of edible food have skyrocketed over the past 100 years. That has led to the need for less acreage and less water to grow food that is a necessary evil in order for people to live.

To be honest, the need to save water has been driven for years by the farming industry’s never-ending struggle to survive. Water costs money. Lack of water costs even more. And not using water as a steward of the land instead of simply as user makes it impossible to sustain farming. One of a myriad of water-based farming issues, salinity, is what led to the downfall of the worlds’ first civilizations built on the back of irrigated crop land in the Middle East.

The final slice of 10 percent is urban users.

This might come as a shock to anyone with a smug anti-Southern California attitude, but Los Angeles has cut water use on a per capita basis since 1976 by significantly wider margins than any city in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Data gleaned from the state Department of Water Resources placed their average daily per capita water consumption by Los Angeles residents at 78 gallons in 2016. Compare that to Manteca in 2019 when there was an average daily per capita consumption of 133.3 gallon.

That is a marked improvement over the 2013 Manteca numbers of 195.5 gallons.

Rest assured neither Manteca number is an aberration for the region.

The city started its downward water consumption trend before the previous drought in a bid to reduce costs and delay the need for costly new wells and to expand the surface water treatment plant. The statewide drought emergency shifted wise water use measures to the next level.

Manteca follows the statewide average in that between 40 and 50 percent of its water use goes to landscaping. And of that half is consumed by non-native grasses used in lawns.

The biggest bulk of residential growth is not in the coastal area that are surviving on imported water given growth surpassed local water basins’ ability to sustain populations decades ago.

Water resources that would have gone to growing cities in the Central Valley under the “system” nature put in place were appropriated long ago so Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area could continue to grow.

And just so you don’t think this is a question of simply tightening up even more on water use in the coastal cities, you can argue that the lion’s share of growth in Inland California — as well as the prosperity being enjoyed — is the direct result of the need to provide housing for the job rich coastal areas.

That means there would be significantly less tract homes all with grass front yards that are almost always 100 percent ornamental in function being built in the Sacramento region, the Northern San Joaquin Valley, and Bakersfield if there was not coastal economic growth.

The lawn ban does not need to be retroactive to be effective.

There is a research paper by Donald Hodel and Dennis Pittenger of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources that debates the need to replace existing grass in front yards.

They cite studies that show fescue grass lawns — the most popular in the state and clearly not meant for California’s arid climate which is why they aren’t found here naturally — are consistently overwatered. And if they are replaced with other grasses as delineated the yards in question can achieve permanent 20 percent water savings.

The paper also underscores that woody plants and other non-turf plans typically use 55 percent less water than the average fescue grass.

Clearly smart landscaping choices going forward can reduce future water needs by reflecting the shift in agriculture and even those in charge of maintaining ecological systems to practices that allow them to continue to prosper.

The state has already mandated low-flow toilets, low-flow shower heads, and water sufficient washers. It is time to be pro-active on a statewide basis to reduce the largest residential use of water which is landscaping.

The most effective and painless way to do that is via a ban on all new front yard lawns as well as in commercial landscaping applications. Lawn services would still have existing yards and the nursery industry can replace the selling of rolls of sod with other landscaping.

And if you don’t think it’s a pressing need given the cool and wet weather of the last few days, here are a few sobering statistics brought to you courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor.

As of March 9, there was 99.25 percent of California in abnormally dry conditions, 90.09 percent in moderate drought, 58.59 percent in severe drought, 29.54 percent in extreme drought, and 3.75 percent in exceptional drought.

More than two thirds of San Joaquin County is in severe drought while the rest, along with Stanislaus County and the central Sierra watershed critical for our surface water, is in moderate drought.