Water. We use it throughout the day, from brushing our teeth to watering our plants. It travels hundreds of miles through aqueducts to reach us, and then we pour it down a drain. According to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, our largest use of water is strictly for aesthetics — a green front yard.
Murrieta, a city in Southern California, spares no cost for green grass. The city has a yard maintenance ordinance, which requires all residents to have a well-maintained front yard. No overgrown weeds or vegetation is allowed, and the ground must be covered with landscaping material.
Christie Valenzuela, a Murrieta homeowner of 19 years, received a citation from the city in September. The city charged her $100 a day until the dirt in her front yard was covered. She wrote back several times hoping for an extension due to financial issues amid the pandemic, but never received a response. So she jumped into action and renovated the yard within four days, spending about $4,000 of her own money in the process.
“It was really stressful and took a lot of work. I wasn’t prepared to spend money on my lawn but I had no other choice,” said Valenzuela.
When asked about her opinion on Murrieta’s yard maintenance ordinance, Valenzuela lamented the heft of the chore the city has foisted on residents.
“I think it’s a burden. I really don’t believe in a rule to maintain a lawn when we’re in a drought,” Valenzuela said.
The California Drought Preparedness manual, in cooperation with the California Rural Water Association, advises to only water the lawn when needed. The group advises watering when the grass takes on a blue-green or gray tinge, it doesn’t bounce back within a few minutes after being stepped on, and if an area is hard or uncomfortable to walk on barefoot.
“I think it’s great that they have put out guidelines to help people find the best way to save water during droughts,” Valenzuela said.
Another tip is to reimagine the type of landscape for your lawn. Not all landscapes are green, after all.
Patrick Joseph, a Murrieta homeowner of 20 years, switched to a desert landscape in his front yard and now pays less for water.
“The water bill dropped by 25%” Joseph said. “When my kids are all home taking showers twice a day, I spend around $90 a month.”
Other tips for those who wish to maintain a green lawn include watering early in the morning, or late at night. Up to 25 gallons of water can be lost to evaporation when watering during the day.
Using either sprinklers or hand watering, keep the pattern coarse, low and slow. Water is more likely to drift or evaporate when in a fine mist. Instead of watering the whole lawn when there are brown spots, water those sections by hand.
“I water the grass every two days and the flowers every day,” said Teresa Nguyen, a Murrieta homeowner of six years.
Don’t scalp when mowing the lawn, a thicker lawn retains moisture better. Keep the mower set to 2-3 inches. Don’t worry about raking up the clippings, they act as mulch that holds in more moisture.
One Murrieta resident shared another tip that was helpful that you won’t find on the CDP website.
“One thing I do is go really close to the base of the plants and soak the roots so I’m not just spraying water and causing a lot of run off everywhere,” Valenzuela said.
Some residents feel the yard maintenance ordinance is useful for making the neighborhood look nice. Joseph explained that while the cost of yard upkeep may be high, he also believes that a nice curb aesthetic is important for the overall appeal of a home.
“I think aesthetics do have appeal for home value.”
Additionally, homeowner Elizabeth Brown said that front yards should have something other than dirt for similar reasons.
“I think they should have something. They can’t just have dirt, that doesn’t look good. Cover it with rocks or something decorative.”
Water travels a long way to reach us and takes up a lot of energy which feeds into climate change, and leads to more droughts, so it’s important that we learn to use only what we need. Some people consider green lawns necessary and others can’t afford them or want to conserve water. Aesthetics do not have to be sacrificed in order to save water. Correctly reducing water use on your lawn won’t affect appearance but will affect your wallet.
The next time you run the faucet while brushing your teeth, remember what oceanographer and environmental activist Philippe Cousteau Jr. said about waste:
“The fact of the matter is our homes are on the frontlines when it comes to protecting and conserving our critical water resources. More than that, they are also key to protecting our health.”