Tuesday, October 3, 2017

One Small But Stupid Part of the Problem

In the wide range of practices that cause Americans' inability to live within the means of our planet, lawn management is not particularly important. But it's a microcosm of the narrow self-interest and inertia that we will have to overcome if people are going to live sustainably.

Today's Star Tribune gives the results of a recent University of Minnesota study on lawns, and it's bad from top to bottom. Everything is wrong. It starts with the cultural idea that we "need" an even, green, weedless expanse around every house, of course. But even that could be managed a lot better.

The researchers surveyed a thousand Twin Cities residents, both urban and suburban. These problems are all much worse in the suburbs, of course, and a lot of that has to do with sprinklers. The story doesn't report what percent of homes have sprinkler systems, or how much more common they are in the suburbs than the central cities. But it's not just about sprinklers:

  • The lawns are the wrong kind of grass to start with. Kentucky bluegrass requires more water, fertilizer, and mowing than other types of grass. It's also more sensitive to the kinds of temperature swings typical here.
  • Three-quarters of sprinkler systems have at least one leaking sprinkler head.
  • On average, the sprinklers are watering 500 square feet of pavement.
  • More than half of homeowners with sprinklers leave them on the automatic setting, which means every other day, whether it rains or not. (Duh, especially this year!) 
  • They usually run early in the morning, so the homeowners never think about whether the watering was needed or not and never see the runoff onto pavement.
The Kentucky bluegrass problem made me wonder if at least that could be addressed further up the chain, by getting sod farms to stop growing it. I imagine someone at the U is trying to address that, but there's another underlying problem, according to the researchers:
Kentucky bluegrass became the norm...because the dark black soil that grass needs is often scraped off during construction of suburban developments and not adequately replaced when the homes are finished. Contractors simply spread rolls of Kentucky bluegrass over poor soils, which then require copious amounts of water, mowing, fertilizing and weed killer to flourish...
There are, of course, grasses that are better-suited to Minnesota and require almost no mowing, and the U of M is working to develop more of them. These mixes are available in garden stores now. But they probably are not available in sod rolls, and even if they are, contractors would have to change their cheapskate bad soil habits.

Things cost money. People have to replace their lawns and yank out their sprinkler systems.

So now we need a researcher to figure out the direct ROI on savings from decreased water payments. And of course, that's not mentioning the externalized cost of all this wasted water.

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