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There Oughta Be a Lawn : While Some Have Switched to Gravel and Ground Covers, Others Can Make a Pretty Good Case for Grass

July 22, 1990|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor for Los Angeles Times Magazine.

THE PICTURE being painted for the future is not a pleasant one: dry, sand-colored lawns, prickly underfoot, dead from lack of water. Is this, as some experts believe, the inevitable fate of lawns in Southern California?

During this fourth year of drought, with reservoirs drying up throughout the state, it is crucial to cut back on the use of water. Lawns, considered by many to be the thirstiest element in a garden, certainly seem the logical place to start.

"It's pretty hard to justify that big slab of green when you run out of water," says Santa Barbara nurseryman Ray Sodomka. "The lawn is an easy sacrifice, compared to trees and shrubs--or taking a shower."

Sodomka should know; his lawn has been brown for months. In Santa Barbara--where special pumps are being installed in the reservoirs to suck water from the very bottoms--lawns are as dry and crisp as native grasses. Those who tried to keep their lawns alive in early summer found in their mailboxes water bills for as much as $500, just one penalty for wasteful water use.

So far, in Southern California, Santa Barbara's case is unique. But many people believe it's a preview of California's future: To save precious water, some say, Californians will simply have to get rid of their lawns. Incredible suggestions are being made as water-saving alternatives. Some seem ridiculous, such as filling entire front yards with artificial plants and dyeing lawns green. Others sound sublime, such as replacing water-needy plants with Mediterranean and California natives that can survive almost entirely on natural rainfall. There is talk among city and county officials not only of limits on how much area around a home can be planted with turf and of "official" plant lists that would mandate which plants can and cannot be grown, but of outright bans on lawns.

Although only Santa Barbara has banned the watering of lawns, other areas have come up with incentives for cutting back of the amount of lawn in a yard. The North Marin County Water District, for instance, offers rebates of as much as $300 to those who limit their new lawns to 800 square feet or who tear up their existing lawns and plant ground covers, or any other plant for that matter, in their place.

Not everyone believes that dooming the lawn--our symbol of suburbia and the good life--will solve the water shortage or help the environment. "Whenever there is a problem, people are told to kill their lawns," says Beth Rogers, of Pacific Sod, who is involved in the newly formed Green Industries Council, a group representing nurseries, landscape contractors and designers. "We had a federal water officer in Northern California say that the sign of a good citizen is a dead lawn. Are lawns and gardens that unimportant?"

California's estimated 1.38 million acres of lawn are thought to use the bulk of the water applied to the landscape. Studies done by the North Marin County Water District indicate that, at least in that region, lawns soak up about 90% of all water used outdoors in suburban areas. But researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have given us a new, and more complete, water-use breakdown for the entire state: Almost 80% of the water in California is used for agriculture, 12% by homes and industries and an additional 4% for landscapes--which sounds like a drop in the bucket. In fact, Rogers and other lawn defenders consider this an inequitable distribution of water in a state that is rapidly becoming more urban than it is agricultural. "We need to protect the garden as a priority water use," says Rogers. "Plants are one of the few things that mitigate the urban environment. We don't live in a pristine natural environment but in an asphalt jungle. Plants are one of the few things that make it habitable; they cool and clean our air, hold down dust and runoff, and," she adds, "grass does these things better than most plants."

Victor A. Gibeault, University of California Cooperative Extension environmental horticulturist at UC Riverside and an authority on turf grasses in Southern California, agrees. In an as-yet-unpublished report on California turf grass, he writes: "Turf grasses directly influence our immediate environment in many positive ways. Actively growing turf grasses have been shown to reduce high summer surface temperatures because of transpirational cooling. Turf grasses, often with trees, shrubs and ground covers, reduce discomforting glare and traffic noise and increase infiltration of water in the soil and the water quality."

The actual amount of water that lawns require is also debatable--not all grasses are created equal. "A lot of the information about lawns is not based on fact," says Gibeault. "Ten years ago we had no facts. Now we have some, and they show that, in Southern California at least, lawns may not use all that much more water than other commonly used plants."

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