The experiment isn’t working.
Economists, policy wonks and researchers are studying whether offering rebates to get people to tear out lawns and put in its place landscaping that doesn’t guzzle water is an effective way to reduce water use and if it is gaining traction to encourage others to follow suit without dangling a rebate in front of them. Some are framing it as a “social experiment”.
One little problem with their premise. The experiment isn’t ripping out turf and replacing it with more drought-resistant landscaping. The experiment is having lawns or turf in the first place.
California aside for a moment, lawns per se wasn’t something that “the masses” even gave much thought to up until about 110 years or so. Grass fashioned into lawns were found on estates of the well-to-do. As the experiment known as free-standing single homes in established cities grew, grass evolved into lawn.
They weren’t big water guzzlers at first primarily because rain is common year round in the South, the Midwest, and the East.
California — and much of the Southwest — is arid. The experiment was importing grasses conducive to lawns to the Golden State.
Rain is rare in much of California from May to October. That’s why Mother Nature had the foresight not to make fescue grass native to California.
The only California natural grass you’ll find in Manteca today is essentially a small strip at the transit center on Moffat Boulevard. No, it doesnlt look like a “lawn”. It grows in clumps that attain a height of six inches or so. They will converge together over time. And if you want a more manicured look it needs to be cut once every two months. And in the height of summer they can thrive with light, once a week watering. Its California vegetation as nature intended.
It is clear with 39 million people and more on the way, it is not sustainable to keep building single family homes where front yard lawns are planted that take up half or more of all domestic water use. That compares to the country as a whole where a third of all household water use is for lawns and gardens and not just lawns.
Las Vegas — a city that knows its limitations — has adopted the most sensible approach of all Southwest cities. All new residential construction is prohibited by law from having any grass in the front yard. Manteca, and a number of other California cities, responded to the drought by restricting lawn areas to a set percentage of a new home’s front yard.
Las Vegas and cities in California did not make any regulations about backyard grass. You may think it is because they can’t see it to regulate it. That little detail has never stopped bureaucrats from regulating things before. The real reason is pure logic: People use their backyards to “live” in, for kids to play and for dogs to roam. Front yards are for looks.
Granted, in some places back East that’s not the case. But then again this isn’t Iowa. Homes in the suburbs or cities here don’t have 12,000 square-foot front yards.
Doing away with lawns won’t make front yards uglier. And, if done right, it will reduce maintenance costs besides significantly reducing water use.
As an added bonus, it will also reduce the mindless use of leaf blowers, especially those that aren’t electric.
Yard services are notorious for blowing grass clippings scattered on sidewalks and driveways into the street, down gutters, or into a neighbor’s yard instead of sweeping them up. Why gas-powered leaf blowers are worse is two-fold: They are noisier and two-stroke engines — because they don’t have any apparatus to scrub the exhaust — are among the biggest gross polluters.
Considering Manteca is in the San Joaquin Valley — the nation’s worst basin for clean air attainment — reducing the possibility that 500 new homes each year will deploy leaf blowers once a week just to blow around lawn debris seems like a reasonable goal to pursue.
As for people who don’t want to take care of front lawns and leave that to a yard service, small businessmen are smart. They will add basic gardening — trimming and such — to their repertoire of services to keep making a living. But if you want out of the expense of a lawn service especially if you use it for your front yard only, there is a lot of native and drought resistant plants you can use that require absolutely bare minimum attention after they are established.
The experiment that isn’t working is trying to make California suburbs and residential single family home portions of cities look like they’re in Maryland.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.