Will You Choose Grass or Fish?

Before I moved to the arid American West more than 20 years ago, I was told water was short and the west could not sustain the population growth and the water intensive, lawn watering life style. After I got here, I was surprised to see irrigation water running down the streets as people watered their lawns. Apparently, the news of water shortages never reached the west.

2015 drought map

Figure 1. Click for Larger Image of Latest Data

I have lived in this arid environment for over 20 years and I also use water to irrigate a small patch of grass, raised beds for veggies, fruit trees and raspberry, blackberry and strawberry patches. We have a car that occasionally needs a wash, but I haven’t washed my old truck since 1999.

During the time I have lived here, the population has grown about 63% and while the T.V. weather people always seem concerned about things like snowpack and reservoir levels, no outdoor watering restrictions have ever been imposed on us.

De-Watered Streams

Why do I care if the neighbors waste water on grass? Because a “Blue-ribbon” tail-water trout stream flows through our valley. The reservoir that feeds the stream has dropped to 44% capacity. It will probably not happen in the next few years, but if the drought continues, our stream could run out of water. We can’t do anything about the drought, but we can start saving water so the stream can maintain a minimal flow of water.

It has been many years since our stream ran dry and that’s part of the reason the fishing is so good, but the fact is many streams in the West are de-watered every year, not just in drought years. Every western state has streams that naturally dry up, but many streams are de-watered due to irrigation. Some streams are used up only on the driest years, but others are de-watered almost every year. As example, Montana has 3,778 miles of river that are de-watered every year (Download pdf).

Water is for Fighting

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate grass. I’ve already admitted to having a small patch of grass. Who doesn’t like to walk barefoot in the grass while grilling in the backyard? But it sucks to think that we could lose our river, our patch of grass and possibly our fruit trees because some people over water the grass and waste water washing cars and driveways.

An old saying some attribute to Mark Twain says “Whiskey is for drinking, but water is worth fighting over.” I will not fight to keep my little patch of grass. If it comes to it, I may fight to keep my fruit trees and raised beds, but as a fisherman and as a biologist, I will go to war over the trout stream. If our trout stream is threatened because of people wasting water on grass, you better believe there is going to be a war in this little valley.

Current Status of the Drought

So far in 2015, the drought in the American West is getting worse. Last winter, the storms that sent record snowfall and cold temperatures to the eastern U.S. bypassed the west coast resulting in record high temperatures in February and record low precipitation in March. The end result was the lowest snowpack (5% of normal) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains since 1950.

California as a whole is in the worst drought conditions, with 44% of the entire state classified as “Exceptional drought” by the U.S. Drought Monitor (Click on Figure 1 above for latest data and maps). Exceptional drought means “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.”

Exceptional drought also extends into parts of Nevada and “Extreme drought” conditions extend into Southern Oregon and Western Utah and “Severe drought” conditions exist in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho (Read more information about drought categories at Live Science & NPR).

The drought is so “exceptional” in California, the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, calls the drought “the most serious challenge our generation has ever faced” and Gov. Brown issued an executive order (EO) (Download PDF) that requires Californians to reduce potable water use by 25 percent. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking the drought seriously and has already closed over 30 rivers and creeks to fishing.

The mountain valley where I live is included with the 21% of the western area in “Severe Drought”, but almost 38% of the entire west is suffering drought categorized as severe, exceptional or worse. The reservoir that supplies our irrigation water was only 44% full last week, but on the first day of the irrigation season, I see water running down both sides of the street again. Apparently, people still haven’t heard the news.

How to Maintain a Lawn and Save Water

My grass is as green as any yard in my neighborhood because I learned to water and mow properly. I’m not special. I just did what was recommended.

  • Even in my very dry area, the “experts” say lawns only need to be watered about ½ inch every third day in the summer and every 4th day in the spring and fall. The deep watering encourages grass and plants to grow deep roots, so they are more drought tolerant. Watering every day makes water available near the top of the soil. Plants get spoiled and their roots stay near the surface where the soil warms and dries quickly causing the grass to turn brown quickly.
  • Cut grass at the maximum mower height so the grass shades itself and the soil. Taller grass makes more shade and holds more humidity. This reduces the soil temperature and reduces evaporation. As a bonus, tall grass also helps prevent weeds like dandelions from getting started. This also reduces the need for weed killers that are not good for groundwater, bees or fish.
  • Mulch the grass clippings, do not bag and remove clippings. The chopped up grass clippings act like mulch and help hold water in the grass and in the soil. Removing clippings removes nutrients and increases the need for fertilizer. Our grandfathers would laugh at us for putting grass in a bag and hauling it to the dump. If you absolutely feel that you must remove all the grass clippings, you should at least compost it on your property. Grass clippings are a resource, not trash.
  • Also consider reducing some of the lawn and replacing it with plants that require less water, less maintenance and actually help native wildlife, like hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

If you do these simple things, your grass will be green, you will save lots of water, you will spend less time and money on the lawn and you will help keep pollutants out of the groundwater and the streams. Then, you can go fishing.

How much water can be saved?

Potential Water Savings

On my street, at least 10 of the 13 houses (77%) water the grass every single day, even on days when it rains. Many also water during the hottest parts of the day so much of the water is lost straight to evaporation. It’s hard to deny that water is being wasted when it runs down both sides of the street everyday. Not only does this waste water, but also carries trash, pollutants, fertilizer and warm water straight back to the river and all these things are bad for the fish.

There are about 11,000 housing units in our little valley. That may not sound like much to you, but it is plenty here. Assuming the same ratio (77%) of houses in the valley waste water, that would be 8,462 total houses. Most of the lots in my neighborhood are quarter acre lots, with about one eighth acre covered with grass (5,445 sq. ft). If I assume the average lawn is about the same size as on my street, it takes 1,700 gallons to water 5,455 sq feet with ½ inch each watering. Assuming each house wastes only two waterings per week. I believe that is a gross under-estimation of the waste, but if multiplied by 25 weeks of irrigation adds up to 85,000 gallons per house each summer. The total saving for the entire valley would be 719,270,000 gallons.

The lowest average flow in our little river is about 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) or 1,122 gallons per second. If we could save 719,270,000 gallons each summer, that would be enough water to sustain the entire river for 7.4 days or it could provide a low flow of 50 cfs for more than 22 days. That would probably be enough to save the river and fish in a bad water year. The river is not destroyed, the fish may not be fat and happy, but they could recover and everyone still has green grass. The war will be averted, at least for now. As the human population grows, more cuts in water use will have to be made.

If more people knew the consequences of wasting water, they would be more likely to use water wisely. It may be too late for large populated areas like southern California to save their rivers. Wells are already going dry and many people are really suffering. People that can’t take showers are not wasting water on grass, but they also can’t afford to care about the river. We can’t wait until it’s too late to start conserving water.

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