Home & Family
Turf Battle Heats Up Over Limits on Water-Guzzling Landscapes
There's a turf war under way over America 's lawns, and it may be headed for your yard.
Later this year, the plans to expand its WaterSense conservation program to include a voluntary label for newly built homes. Homes could win certification if they consume roughly 20% less water than standard new homes. Along with criteria for high-efficiency toilets and faucets, the program has a landscaping clause that could strictly limit the amount of turfgrass participating builders plant. The rationale: Homeowners waste a lot of water laboring to keep lawns lush.
Before & After
Southern Nevada Water Authority (2)
Locally, some cities and water utilities, in Florida, Nevada and Texas, for example, already offer homeowners and builders financial incentives for taking steps to decrease water usage, including reducing the amount of lawn in residential yards. But the EPA's latest bid to go green would take the movement national, and that has the turfgrass industry up in arms.
"It puts a label on grass as bad that it's not something to be used," says Kris Kiser, executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group representing equipment manufacturers for the landscape, lawn and other industries. Mr. Kiser says his group and other landscape-trade organizations are lobbying legislators to oppose the proposed WaterSense criteria for landscaping. And Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the world's largest lawn and garden company, has criticized the EPA's outdoor plan as "arbitrary" and "not supported by science."
Under the plan, WaterSense would give participating builders two options for landscaping new homes. The first: Turfgrass can't exceed 40% of the landscapable area. The second: Builders may use a "water-budget" approach and an EPA-provided online tool to design landscape based on a regionally appropriate amount of water, as well as individual plants' water needs. "So basically, a yard in Maine or Minnesota could have larger turf area than Las Vegas ," says Virginia Lee, EPA's WaterSense program team leader.
Ms. Lee says the average home in America uses 30% of its water outdoors, and in some areas of the country that number soars to 70%. While there's nothing to stop homeowners from planting all the turfgrass they want once they move in, with WaterSense landscaping as an initial template, she says, "we are trying to teach people to plant appropriate landscapes."
Looming Water Shortages
That the nation's water supplies need closer monitoring and preservation is generally not in dispute. in 36 states anticipate shortages by 2013, according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Between 1950 and 2000, the U.S. population nearly doubled, but public demand for water more than tripled, according to the EPA.
The problem is particularly severe in regions battling competing forces of drought and heavy population growth, such as Las Vegas , Texas , Florida and Atlanta . A five-year study of Nevada homes that converted lawn to Xeriscape a broad term for water-efficient landscape that includes flowers, plants and trees found converted areas used 75% less water on average. The study was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Homeowners in some towns can get financial incentives to replace certain types of turfgrass with plants deemed more water efficient. Here's a sampling (some awards are capped and funds may be limited):
Water-bill credit of up to 75 cents a square foot for converting landscape designated as "high water use" such as Kentucky bluegrass and sheep fescue to lower-water-use plantings. Plus, 25% off the cost of renting equipment for grass removal.
Rebate of $1 to $1.50 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with desert landscaping.
$200 to $600 rebate for replacing turf areas with "non-grass," low-water-use, drought-tolerant plants.
$100 gift certificate to nursery for, among other things, "having no more than 50% of the landscape planted in turf" (only Bermuda, buffalo or zoysia varieties no St. Augustine ). Additional water bill credit of $50 to $300 for low water usage.
"Xeriscape Rebate" offers residential customers up to $1 per square foot for replacing turf grass with low-water-use plant material.
The EPA hopes its WaterSense program, launched in 2006, can mimic the success of greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Star label is now on thousands of items. By year-end, nearly one million new homes will have been Energy Star certified meaning built with qualifying materials and equipment that make them roughly 30% more efficient than standard new homes. While purchases of government-certified products are voluntary, over time they can skew the market toward products meeting the criteria. Over the Labor Day weekend, for instance, Sears and Lowe's hawked 20% discounts on appliances bearing the Energy Star label., the federal program created in 1992 to identify and champion products that help reduce
Opponents of the WaterSense landscape criteria worry the EPA certification, as currently proposed, might eventually gain similar traction as Energy Star among home builders. Some WaterSense labeled products, such as toilets, qualify for rebates in places such as Cobb County, Ga. , and Durham , N.C. Proposed legislation would give a federal tax credit to purchasers of WaterSense-labeled homes. Other water-saving rebates are listed at www.epa.gov/watersense.
But while significant strides have been made to reduce residential indoor water use with low-flow faucets, shower heads and other water-conserving appliances, outdoor usage remains difficult to curtail. "Indoors, water conservation is based on installing technologies that don't require significant changes in behavior you can still flush the toilet and do laundry," says Heather Cooley, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group. Outdoors, there is more behavior change involved with educating people about the volume of water being used and alternatives to lawns and irrigation technologies."
Public officials are trying financial persuasion to convince consumers to ditch grass. The Southern Nevada Water Authority runs a Get Off Your Grass, We'll Pay Cash program that pays customers between $1 and $1.50 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with desert landscaping. To date the program has converted turf equivalent to roughly 2,400 football fields. Building codes in the Las Vegas area also require that new homes cannot have any lawn in the front yard and only 50% lawn in back, says Doug Bennett, conservation manager at SNWA.
What Neighbors Think
Florida has its own voluntary program, called Water Star, that limits how much high-volume-irrigation landscape often that's turfgrass participating builders can install. But that can conflict with rules enforced by many homeowners associations that require well-maintained grass landscaping. This spring, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist stepped in and signed a bill permitting homeowners to replace lawns with more " Florida friendly" plants, regardless of neighborhood covenants. Some cities, such as Apopka , Fla. , even regulate the type of grass permitted for new homes to favor more drought-tolerant varieties such as Bahia and Bermuda over St. Augustine .
Such moves have met with mixed reviews. "No one here wants to see Xeriscape next door to them for the most part," says Greg Kullman, resident and former president of Silverthorn, a gated golf-course community in Hernando County , Fla. He estimates grass takes up about 90% of a Silverthorn home's yard. "Grass is a part of everyone's life from when you are first born. Without grass, a home would be bland, and if a home is bland, its value drops."
Virtues of Grass
Others say grass's own environmental benefits are being sold short. Scotts Miracle-Gro this year launched a Love Your Lawn consumer Web site. In its public comments opposing WaterSense's landscape criteria, the company asserts that healthy turf reduces soil erosion, traps dust and dirt and reduces surface temperatures. Scotts and other grass sellers are developing new seed varieties that need less water.
The EPA aims to implement the WaterSense program for new homes in early December but the agency could still modify the landscape criteria. One alternative model is Florida 's Water Star program, which doesn't directly limit turfgrass but rather the amount of landscape that uses high-volume irrigation. That distinction forces participating home builders to plant more drought-tolerant grass varieties or other water-saving plants without demonizing grass, says Deirdre Irwin, Water Star coordinator for the St. Johns Water Management District, one of five such agencies in Florida .
"Our agency has a strong position that it isn't turfgrass that wastes water but the irrigation and the wrong species in the wrong place," Ms. Irwin says.