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Our Water, Our World: Taming the Green Monster

By Paul Pickett

Like a great cave bear it hibernates most of the winter. But as the days warm it awakens. Under the spring sun it raises its head and begins to grow. For the next few months we will engage in endless battle to tame it. Its name: Lawn.

Oddly, many in America have a love affair with this monster. The origin of this relationship is unclear, but it could be traced to the park-like lawns of the aristocracy. It might also have its roots in the green lawns watered by summer rains in the eastern half of our continent. But in the West, many Americans have come to accept as a standard of the "good life" that lawns should be watered, fertilized, and treated with pesticides so they remain green and smooth all summer. In some areas this is even enforced by local ordinance or subdivision covenants.

So what's so bad about a lawn? First of all, the Green Monster is a thirsty beast. Almost half the water used in our communities is used on lawns. This is especially a big impact in the summer when the weather is hottest and driest. Lawns need water at the same time water is also lowest in our streams and rivers. And where municipal water use is coming at the expense of a salmon stream, this can have a big impact on fish populations already stressed from other human impacts.

Not only does the Green Monster threaten salmon, we have to pay for its drinking problem. Water systems have to be designed for peak use, with peaking factors often twice as high or more than average water use. This increases the costs of water storage tanks, pipes, valves, pumps, and treatment. Peak water demand for lawns also stresses pumps and treatment systems, increasing maintenance costs. Taken together, the result is higher water utility rates.

But the Green Monster isn't just a thirsty beast, it also demands to be fed. To maintain the lush green perfection many expect, people spread fertilizers and pesticides. These lawn chemicals soak into the ground water and are washed by the rains into our streams. The nutrients in lawn fertilizers don't just make lawns green, they can also make our lakes and streams green. A bill in the 2010 legislature recognized this by proposing to limit lawn fertilization in the watershed of lakes.

Lawn pesticides are a particularly nasty problem. There are almost 30 pesticides used on lawns, and most have some toxic effect. They have been linked to cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, and damage to the nerves or internal organs. Like fertilizers, irrigation and rainfall can carry lawn pesticides into the ground water and streams.

Lawn pesticides not only threaten human health, they can also harm salmon. Research has shown that low levels of several pesticides can disrupt predator avoidance, reproduction, and food supply. A federal court recognized this in 2004 when it ordered buffers around salmon streams from pesticide use. Public campaigns have sprung up around the west encouraging people to have "Salmon-friendly Lawns".

Feeding and weeding the Green Monster isn't the only problem. Lawn mowing has its own set of impacts. Gasoline lawn mowers are notoriously inefficient, spewing air pollutants and adding to the carbon footprint. These mowers can also add to water pollution through spilled oil and gasoline. Regional Clean Air Authorities frequently offer low cost trade-ins for electric mowers to reduce air pollution from gas mowers.

So why do we let the Green Monster do so much damage? People certainly have reasons to enjoy some lawn area: for recreation, relaxation and kids' play area. But often the amount of space, time, and money spent creating and controlling a lawn seems absurd. Who needs lawns in the front of their house, which no one uses? How much lawn is really needed for lying on and playing in?

A new aesthetic is called for. Social marketing campaigns are trying to create new images of beautiful yards, including desert landscape yards, multi-layer native plantings, and lawns that are "asleep" in the summer. Studies using digital imagery have shown that when people are shown a choice, many prefer a diverse landscaping of native plants to a monoculture lawn.

And consider your foodscape as well. Converting some of your Green Monster to an organic garden gives you the additional benefits of healthy, fresh food. You also reduce carbon emissions by eating less food grown with petrochemicals and transported from far away.

Taming the Green Monster is not trivial it could result in many important benefits to the environment and our lives. Plant shrubbery and gardens on it. Stop feeding and watering it (or water it efficiently and with rain barrel water when necessary). Don't spread poisons on it. Cut it with an electric mower if possible. If we do that over all the neighborhoods in our community, we can save money, improve our health, protect salmon, and have yards that are carbon neutral.

Paul Pickett is an environmental engineer, Public Utility District Commissioner, and occasional columnist for Green Pages, whose views are entirely his own.


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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22