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Brown Grass Isn't Dead Grass — Lawn Experts Say Watering Less During Drought Won't Ruin It Forever

A photo of a lawn mower in grass.
Still From RadioWest Film 'The American Lawn'
Kelly Kopp of Utah State University’s Plants, Soils & Climate department says grass has an undeserved bad reputation. It provides many cooling, soil and moisture retention benefits. The problem, Kopp says, is that Utahns are watering their lawns twice as much as necessary.

Ninety percent of Utah has been in an extreme drought since the start of the year. Gov. Spencer Cox has since issued a state of emergency asking everyone to cut back on water use.

So, what are homeowners who pride themselves on velvety green lawns to do when it comes to watering? KUER’s Pamela McCall spoke with Kelly Kopp, Professor and Extension Specialist in the Plants, Soils & Climate department at Utah State University. Her work focuses on landscape water conservation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: What is the life cycle of grass during this summer?

Kelly Kopp: The life cycle of many of the grasses that we grow in Utah peaks in the spring and also the fall and tends to slow down significantly midsummer. So, often folks will look outside and they'll see some decline in color or perhaps cover and think that there's a problem midsummer. But it's actually an absolutely normal biological process that grass plants go through, and they can sometimes enter dormancy similar to trees in the fall.

PM: Given the drought, what about getting rid of grass altogether?

KK: One of the big focuses in my work is getting information out to folks that they can actually have grasses that are low water use. But even before that, I often try to just get folks to irrigate their landscapes efficiently because that would save an incredible amount of water almost instantly. I also will say that there are areas where grasses are not necessarily the best plant choice — areas that aren't receiving a lot of foot traffic or play.

But I don't really like to recommend turf grass removal because of the loss of some of the environmental benefits that we actually get from grasses in our landscapes. They provide a lot of cooling around structures — around homes, around schools, municipal buildings, city buildings, etc. They actually really work to moderate temperature, which translates to reduced cooling costs. And they also provide a number of other benefits, including retention of stormwater on site. They're able to filter nutrients out of irrigation and water and precipitation. Because of their extensive root systems, they prevent soil erosion. And like every other plant out there, they also sequester carbon. And so I feel sometimes they get a bit of a bad reputation that’s undeserved because folks don’t necessarily know about those benefits.

PM: You have written about watering priorities for people's yards. And grass is not number one. What do you advise?

KK: I always put trees at the top of the list. And I think they should be number one in terms of irrigation, because they are the most valuable plants in the landscape financially. And they're also incredibly valuable because of the shade and other benefits that they provide. Beyond that, shrubs, then perennials, annuals. Turf grasses would be last on the list because they are just so resilient.

PM: There is a waterwise audit program in the state. Based on that, what have you learned from those audits?

KK: We have found that folks typically are irrigating their landscapes about twice as much as the plants actually require. We've also learned that if we can get folks to irrigate efficiently, we could almost instantly reduce water consumption in the municipal sector by about 50%.

PM: You often recommend technology to deal with that.

KK: There are irrigation controllers that automate the process entirely so that a homeowner or a landscape manager doesn't need to be constantly going and changing the irrigation schedule in response to weather conditions. In fact, the state of Utah is rebating those controllers for Utahns right now.

PM: What about planting waterwise yards? We hear a lot about that.

KK: Making those changes is something we should all be working toward. However, there is a caveat. Establishment levels of irrigation are significantly higher than maintenance levels of irrigation. So wait until perhaps, the fall this year, until conditions are a little bit better and we can make it through the bulk of our growing season with enough water.

PM: OK, so what's the number one thing that someone could do right now to help conserve water?

KK: Follow that prioritization of irrigation. And really, if they want to be very, very conservative, I would even advise them to only irrigate their lawn areas to a minimum amount. So that can be as little as one inch of irrigation per month through the growing season. Because, again, grasses are so very resilient. They almost serve as a virtual reservoir for us because we can stop irrigating them for pretty significant periods of time and use that water in other ways, and they will come back very reliably.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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