To Lawn or Not to Lawn – Water Efficiency

May 11, 2015

In many parts of the country, that is the question. A few times a week, here in southern California, I get news that a friend or family member tore out their lawn (often, by this point—for those already conserving—there wasn’t much left to tear out), or that they installed a greywater system for lawn or tree watering. Washing clothes, washing dishes, washing hands, and showering—there is no reason for this water to go into the sewage collection pipeline if you can redirect it into your yard. Last week The New York Times ran this article: “Water Pricing in Two Thirsty Cities: In One, Guzzlers Pay More, and Use Less,” that compares Fresno, CA; and Santa Fe, NM, putting Fresno in the hot seat for its achingly slow adoption of conservation measures.

Fresno has uniform pricing, and last month customers experienced a modest increase—what the Times article compared to the cost of “one medium latte from Starbucks for the typical household and still leaving the price of water in Fresno among the lowest across the entire Western United States.”

In many parts of the country, that is the question. A few times a week, here in southern California, I get news that a friend or family member tore out their lawn (often, by this point—for those already conserving—there wasn’t much left to tear out), or that they installed a greywater system for lawn or tree watering. Washing clothes, washing dishes, washing hands, and showering—there is no reason for this water to go into the sewage collection pipeline if you can redirect it into your yard. Last week The New York Times ran this article: “Water Pricing in Two Thirsty Cities: In One, Guzzlers Pay More, and Use Less,” that compares Fresno, CA; and Santa Fe, NM, putting Fresno in the hot seat for its achingly slow adoption of conservation measures. Fresno has uniform pricing, and last month customers experienced a modest increase—what the Times article compared to the cost of “one medium latte from Starbucks for the typical household and still leaving the price of water in Fresno among the lowest across the entire Western United States.” [text_ad] The article shines a light on some Fresno residents’ insistence on keeping their lush yards, while parts of California’s Central Valley (where Fresno is located) in general suffers near dust-bowl like conditions due to decades of aquifer overuse and a fourth year of steady drought. And yet...
A stroll down East Shepherd Avenue reveals sprawling mansions with impossibly green lawns, fringed with koi ponds, Japanese maples, and roses. Ron and Donna Fena, who have a swimming pool as well as a koi pond in their backyard, say they used only 14,000 gallons last month and are following the guidelines on weekly watering, but they say that’s beside the point. “People are focusing too much on lawns,” Ms. Fena said. “There is still a lot of water around.” She complained that half of California’s surface water goes to keeping rivers flowing and other environmental needs, like sustaining fisheries and also preventing endangered species like the delta smelt from becoming extinct. “I like fish, but I’m not giving up my lawn for some smelt,” Ms. Fena said, only half-joking. “Let those fish die up north. There’s a cycle of life.”
In contrast, Santa Fe went to a tiered pricing system nearly 15 years ago when it was facing the reality of not having enough water to fight fires. Rates in general were raised, and the tiered system means that residents who use more water pay more per gallon. This penalizes the guzzlers, but does not remove their freedom to guzzle if they are willing to pay. And even with growth in the population, overall water use in Santa Fe has fallen by about 5%.
The first tier in Santa Fe—$6.06 per thousand gallons a month for up to 7,000 gallons (10,000 in the summer months)—is aimed at covering basic needs like water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, and doing the laundry. Under this situation, said Nick Schiavo, Santa Fe’s director of public utilities and water, a family of four might use about 220 gallons per day, or 6,600 gallons per month, which adds up to about $40 per month. “You can’t drink that much water or run your dishwasher or shower that much,” Mr. Schiavo said. Using substantially more than that means households are watering the lawn, or “irrigating” in water-department speak. “We don’t do anything draconian,” he added. “For some people, a lawn is important, and if they want to spend their money on irrigation, they can.”
One of the article’s aims is to suggest that tiered pricing may be the only thing that is really going to help California in general, and some CA regions have already assented.
“Tiered pricing offers a balance between fairness and efficiency,” said Kenneth A. Baerenklau, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California, Riverside. A 2014 study led by Professor Baerenklau after the 2009 introduction of tiered pricing in Riverside County concluded that the system reduced demand by 10 to 15 percent from what it would otherwise have been under the old uniform price structure. Using data from the Eastern Municipal Water District of Southern California, the researchers found that although more efficient users reduced consumption by 5 percent, the least efficient consumers cut back by 25 percent. “If you price somebody out of the market for water, you have a big problem,” said Professor Baerenklau. “Tiered pricing impinges on the users that have the most slack.”
I want to look back at Fresno for a moment, because in fairness, there are other things going on in the community besides lavish lawns and egocentrism. Our May issue of Water Efficiency contains the article “New Technology for Smart Educational Facility Landscapes”, which discusses the way that California State University–Fresno is home to the California Water Institute, the International Center for Water Technology, and the Center for Irrigation Technology. The campus itself is a leader in water conservation and efficiency. One company profiled in our article is Aqua Cents, which uses hydrogels injected into the soil just below the root zone of existing turf, allowing more water and nutrients to be retained there. The company just won a 2015 Technology Business of the Year award in the region. Last, but surely not least, on the issue of water conservation and urban planning, our online education department, Forester University, will begin a Master Class Series next week on Permeable Pavement. It’s a four-session series with David Hein, who is the chair of the ASCE T&DI (American Society of Civil Engineers Transportation Development Institute) Permeable Pavement Structural Design Committee. This is an in-depth course getting into permeable pavements and how they can help with water collection. Forester University webinars, webcasts, and master classes are a comfortable and convenient way to get PDH and CEU credits.

The article shines a light on some Fresno residents’ insistence on keeping their lush yards, while parts of California’s Central Valley (where Fresno is located) in general suffers near dust-bowl like conditions due to decades of aquifer overuse and a fourth year of steady drought. And yet…

A stroll down East Shepherd Avenue reveals sprawling mansions with impossibly green lawns, fringed with koi ponds, Japanese maples, and roses.

Ron and Donna Fena, who have a swimming pool as well as a koi pond in their backyard, say they used only 14,000 gallons last month and are following the guidelines on weekly watering, but they say that’s beside the point.

“People are focusing too much on lawns,” Ms. Fena said. “There is still a lot of water around.”

She complained that half of California’s surface water goes to keeping rivers flowing and other environmental needs, like sustaining fisheries and also preventing endangered species like the delta smelt from becoming extinct.

“I like fish, but I’m not giving up my lawn for some smelt,” Ms. Fena said, only half-joking. “Let those fish die up north. There’s a cycle of life.”

In contrast, Santa Fe went to a tiered pricing system nearly 15 years ago when it was facing the reality of not having enough water to fight fires. Rates in general were raised, and the tiered system means that residents who use more water pay more per gallon. This penalizes the guzzlers, but does not remove their freedom to guzzle if they are willing to pay. And even with growth in the population, overall water use in Santa Fe has fallen by about 5%.

The first tier in Santa Fe—$6.06 per thousand gallons a month for up to 7,000 gallons (10,000 in the summer months)—is aimed at covering basic needs like water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, and doing the laundry.

Under this situation, said Nick Schiavo, Santa Fe’s director of public utilities and water, a family of four might use about 220 gallons per day, or 6,600 gallons per month, which adds up to about $40 per month.

“You can’t drink that much water or run your dishwasher or shower that much,” Mr. Schiavo said. Using substantially more than that means households are watering the lawn, or “irrigating” in water-department speak.

“We don’t do anything draconian,” he added. “For some people, a lawn is important, and if they want to spend their money on irrigation, they can.”

One of the article’s aims is to suggest that tiered pricing may be the only thing that is really going to help California in general, and some CA regions have already assented.

“Tiered pricing offers a balance between fairness and efficiency,” said Kenneth A. Baerenklau, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California, Riverside.

A 2014 study led by Professor Baerenklau after the 2009 introduction of tiered pricing in Riverside County concluded that the system reduced demand by 10 to 15 percent from what it would otherwise have been under the old uniform price structure.

Using data from the Eastern Municipal Water District of Southern California, the researchers found that although more efficient users reduced consumption by 5 percent, the least efficient consumers cut back by 25 percent.

“If you price somebody out of the market for water, you have a big problem,” said Professor Baerenklau. “Tiered pricing impinges on the users that have the most slack.”

I want to look back at Fresno for a moment, because in fairness, there are other things going on in the community besides lavish lawns and egocentrism. Our May issue of Water Efficiency contains the article “New Technology for Smart Educational Facility Landscapes”, which discusses the way that California State University–Fresno is home to the California Water Institute, the International Center for Water Technology, and the Center for Irrigation Technology. The campus itself is a leader in water conservation and efficiency. One company profiled in our article is Aqua Cents, which uses hydrogels injected into the soil just below the root zone of existing turf, allowing more water and nutrients to be retained there. The company just won a 2015 Technology Business of the Year award in the region.

Last, but surely not least, on the issue of water conservation and urban planning, our online education department, Forester University, will begin a Master Class Series next week on Permeable Pavement. It’s a four-session series with David Hein, who is the chair of the ASCE T&DI (American Society of Civil Engineers Transportation Development Institute) Permeable Pavement Structural Design Committee. This is an in-depth course getting into permeable pavements and how they can help with water collection. Forester University webinars, webcasts, and master classes are a comfortable and convenient way to get PDH and CEU credits.

About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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