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The case against well-watered lawns

Alan Braunholtz

Between dirty patches of snow dormant lawns start to emerge, pricking through the webs of snow, mold and rubbish from a winter1s neglect.I liked lawns as a kid, running around kicking balls, playing catch and generally enjoying the open space. They lost a bit of their allure when I became old enough to operate a device known as a lawn mower<a whining, polluting temperamental little two-stroke that constantly threatened to lose a strategic nut and send a wobbling blade scything through my ankles.The European fondness for lawns followed the pilgrims to the New World, becoming slightly perverted in the process. The lawn must now be a perfectly uniform covering, a status symbol, homage to the ancestors and traditions. The only perfect lawns I saw in England existed on the best cricket pitches. A Scottish game, golf has helped the spread of this culture of grass, but most Scottish courses don1t boast the manicured fairways our mountain courses do. And in Scotland grass makes sense; the whole country is blessed by a very advanced irrigation system called the weather.Here we live in a high mountain desert, and grass needs a lot of help to grow. Lawns, whether for golf courses or homes, suck up huge amounts of water. Water will be the West1s most precious resource, and we are wasting it on our lawns. Grass will survive dry conditions by going dormant and turning brown, a natural adaptation. But brown spots are a fashion faux pas and are never allowed. This use of water for aesthetically pleasing green grass is growing with every golf course and home built as agricultural land and water rights get sold to developers.If someone wanted to buy water rights and use them for in-stream aesthetics, like preserving a beautiful waterfall or the pleasure of living beside a burbling brook full of happy trout, they couldn1t. Uncontrolled water<water just flowing along<doesn1t count as a use and has no rights under Colorado law.Kayak parks and fish ladders have started to show some 3control and acquire water rights. These in-stream rights panicked the current appointed Colorado Water Conservation Board members, who tend to favor development. A bill giving the board stronger input to the judge who decides on these rights was quickly passed.Climate change will have interesting effects on the West1s water. In a strange double whammy, we1ll have more floods but less water. Warmer spring temperatures will lead to a rapid melting of the snow pack when the soils are saturated, causing a concentrated spring run-off. Dams can1t save water till they are sure they won1t be overfilled. To be safe, they1ll have to let more of the spring run-off go.According to the book Cadillac Desert, in the early 180s Glen Canyon dam looked for a few days that it might 3go. It filled to capacity in a surprisingly large spring run-off and had toopen all its flood gates and hope that the dam could weather the force of the water pouring through and tearing chunks of concrete from the spillways.The Colorado River1s water is already oversubscribed, so any decrease in available water means someone will go short. Probably the fish, as I think the real estate-golf industry has more money. There are moves afoot by the fishing and recreational community to convince the CWCB to allow existing water rights to be purchased and then applied for in-stream use to maintain and improve the health of a stream.This bill has the support of the administration and the environmentalists, and has cleared the Senate. It still has to go through the House, where the Farm Bureau is fighting it hard. The Farm Bureau seems to have morphed from a family farm organization to one more interested in the profitability of agribusiness and food-processing monopolies, using the status of large numbers of insurance members to lobby for them. Policies that help the environment such as the Endangered Species Act, wolves in Yellowstone National Park, factory pig farm regulations, water in streams are inevitably 3wrong and apparently seen as evil wastes of resources.The perfect lawn also requires man-made help in the form of chemicals. Professionals are better here, since they know how much the grass needs. Enthusiastic amateurs (like me) tend to 3make sure by giving a good dose with the result that we overapply everything.Excessive use of lawn chemicals can cause all sorts of diseases. The National Academy of Sciences reports that one in seven people are significantly harmed by pesticide exposure each year. Any excess is washed off into the streams. Orange sludge oozing from mine tailings is an obvious and easily targeted source of water pollution. The polluted run-off from our lawns and streets is less obvious but will become more and more of a threat to healthy rivers as our population grows.Dry landscaping, using natural plants adapted to the Colorado climate, makes a lot of sense. Good ones can be very colorful, great for watching birds and butterflies and better for your and the environment1s health. Cheaper, too, as over 50 percent of your water bill may be the irrigation system. I1m sure the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens can give great advice on plants.Lawns are tough to give up. I1d miss the weekly battle with the mower, but the smaller the better. Any landscaping that relies more on native plants that can survive with less need for man-made water and chemicals will help the mighty Colorado River stay that way. Colorado should be famous for its wild mountains and rivers, not its manicured lawns.Alan Braunholtz writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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