Regions in the Western states of the USA have been experiencing major water shortages in recent history due to an uptick in more intense droughts caused by the climate crisis, increasing population and industry.
Tackling population growth and curbing industrial use of water to prevent waste is not a simple task and so local governments and water providers are attempting to reduce water waste by encouraging homeowners to reduce their landscaping irrigation. A study by the California Department of Water Resources indicates that 53% of total average household water use is used for landscaping and other outdoor uses in the Golden State. Encouraging homeowners to reduce water use for landscaping is low hanging fruit as a method to reduce our overall consumption of water and make better use of a limited resource. Water Districts in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California have imposed restrictions on water use and offer incentives to homeowners to improve the efficiency of their landscape irrigation by transforming their landscapes to use drought tolerant landscaping and remove ornamental lawns. The programs are often labeled as "cash for lawns" as many customers can now receive rebates for removing their lawns.
The problem with "Cash For Lawn" programs is that they are not well-received by homeowners. In 2019, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) that oversees water management for Southern California set aside $36.5 Million to provide rebates over a 3 year period. As of September 2022, only 38% of these funds have been disbursed to residents. Why is it so hard to get people to adopt water-saving measures? there are a few reasons for this:
- Stubborn Homeowners.
- Availability of materials.
- Skills shortage.
- Public outreach is poor.
There are many conservatively-minded residents that are not willing to change their landscapes and have even started trucking in water to irrigate their landscapes when forced to reduce water usage from their main water supply. Having a green lawn ans lush landscaping is often a source of pride, and for many this is how they flex. Some people have an inherent mistrust of government and feel that water restrictions are a form of oppression, a view that is reinforced when they see little enforcement to curb industrial use of water (in California, 80% of business and home water use is by agriculture).
Availability of materials.
Most nurseries are packed with thirsty plants, and drought tolerant options are limited and often much more expensive. Hardware chain-stores still do not carry many water-efficient irrigation devices (for example, you can easily buy all the supplies for a sprinkler system in Home Depot but inventory and staff knowledge of drip irrigation devices are very limited). As a garden designer, I have to order most of my plants and irrigation parts from specialty trade suppliers, whereas traditional landscapers can pick up their supplies locally. This lack of availability makes it hard to maintain a drought tolerant landscape, and discourages landscapers from working with them.
In the Landscape trade, knowledge of working with drought-tolerant plants and water-saving irrigation is poor, which means that the skilled gardeners are in high demand, resulting in increased costs for homeowners to hire them, if they are fortunate enough to find them. Plant nurseries are not very helpful for advice as drought tolerant plants are not their main source of business. As a result, most of the well managed drought tolerant landscapes tend to be self-managed by homeowners. Many drought-tolerant landscapes are not well-maintained when homeowners employ a gardener and this creates a negative image of such landscapes for people that do not have green thumbs.
Public Outreach is Poor
Most Cash for Lawn programs are heavily advertised in the hottest months of the year, in a desperate attempt to curb water usage. Summer is the worst time of year to plant drought tolerant plants because they have adapted to a growing cycle of summer dormancy. New plants need to be watered to get them established, even if they are incredibly drought tolerant. The reason for this is that no plant is drought-resistant, they still need water but they have methods to store water in their roots, trunk or grow long root systems to tap into groundwater. Immature plants to not yet have a the capability to stay hydrated and will need extra water to get them established, something that is difficult to do if you are under water restrictions.
What should we do instead?
Having water conservation strategies is a good idea, water is a precious resource and we all need to be more considerate in our use of water. Local Governments in drought-stricken states should be doing much better to encourage changes in behavior as well as applying equal and just conservation measures to all users, business and household. The growing of water-intensive crops such as Alfalfa should be heavily discouraged, and water intensive plants need to be banned from nurseries. Of course, this is never going to happen as there is demand for these products and capitalist interests seem to always win over environmental concerns. A cultural shift needs to happen to change the mindset that allows this water waste to continue.