Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

One wet winter doesn’t mean Utah can afford to relapse on overwatered lawns

Utah turf removal and wet winter, Bryan Hopkins, Brigham Young University
Bradley Slade
Y Magazine, BYU
Bryan Hopkins is a Brigham Young University professor of plant and wildlife sciences.

Bryan Hopkins is worried. The Brigham Young University professor of plant and wildlife sciences, who specializes in grass and turf, is afraid of what Utahns will do in response to the record snow that buried the state this year.

The concern is that Utah will backslide into its old wasteful ways instead of making peace with the drying West by becoming more drought tolerant.

We had everybody's attention in terms of trying to conserve water, but that has definitely turned against us now because of the wet winter,” he said. “One wet winter does not end our drought.”

One sign of making do in the megadrought was letting ornamental turf grass go. The Legislature beefed up its turf buyback program for homeowners earlier this year. But with the unprecedented snow, some might opt to keep their grass. Hopkins said people need to continue thinking about water conservation, both for their own yards and for the region at large.

“What's best for the environment is also best for the health of the plants,” he said. “It's not good to overwater.”

But many Utahns are water-happy. Hopkins pointed to a study from Utah State University, which showed that the typical homeowner is using twice as much water than is necessary.

Granted, most water in Utah is used by agriculture. But homeowners aren’t off the hook — they still put a significant dent in Utah water consumption.

“We tend to be worse water managers than farmers,” Hopkins said. “Even though we're a smaller size of the footprint, we tend to waste more water on average per acre.”

Utah turf removal and wet winter, parking strip at Bryan Hopkins' home
Courtesy Bryan Hopkins
BYU professor Bryan Hopkins flipped the parking strip at his home to use more drought-tolerant plants.

In order for homeowners to make a meaningful impact on the drought, he said the majority of Utahns need to change how they water their yards. It doesn’t mean saying goodbye to the much-beloved lawn, however. Grass is good at sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. Plus, it keeps the landscape cool and looks nice. Hopkins has grass at his house, just not as much as the typical Utah yard. There’s a small amount in his front yard and around the trampoline his grandchildren play on. Just “enough to keep my property values up and my neighbors happy,” he quipped.

“Even though I'm the grass guy at BYU, I see that water is wasted sometimes with lawns, and so I try to minimize,” he said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: How can someone cool their yard and beautify it while also cutting back on grass? 

Bryan Hopkins: I am not very happy with the yards that are just all rock. That looks terrible, and we don't have to do that. We can absolutely have plants and still cut the water use back tremendously.

My home, and many other properties that I've worked with, take the parking strip out. It's not very functional, and that grass just gets mowed and doesn’t get really used for anything. But rather than just putting a bunch of rocks out there, use water-wise plants. There are lots of choices available at your local garden store — plants that are drought tolerant. Place drip irrigation instead of sprinkler irrigation. Then put mulch on, which looks good and also helps reduce evaporation in the other parts of the landscape. In the other parts of the landscape, use trees and shrubs that root really deeply, especially if you pick ones that are tolerant of low water conditions. Then mix that in with a little ground cover.

I like to get the sprinklers away from the sidewalks and the road – that water ends up getting wasted. And so I think it's good to have drip irrigation next to those and then have the sprinkler irrigation just on the grass. Drip irrigation everywhere else.

CH: How can someone use less water if they're not ready to reduce their grass?

BH: There's a lot of things you can do to cut your water probably by half. I'm a big proponent of stressing the plants a little bit. Not too much — you don’t want to kill them. But I turn my sprinklers on in the spring to make sure everything's working right. Then I shut them off and I wait until the grass starts showing signs of being visibly moisture-stressed. Once that happens, I'll turn the irrigation on and get the grass greened up. Then I'll shut the water off again and let it stress again — I do that twice in the spring. That sends a physiological signal to the plants to probe deeper roots, which is going to pay dividends in July. At that point, I turn the irrigation on in the middle of May or even late May.

Most people irrigate too frequently. In the springtime, you might not have to water every two weeks. During the heat of the summer, every two or three days—maybe four—depending on your soil and how deep your roots are.

A smart controller is a wise investment for everybody. They're not very expensive. You can get a rebate in a lot of communities. It factors in what's happening. So if it rains, for example, it's not going to turn the irrigation on; it's going to wait.

If everybody would do [these things], we would be miles ahead of where we are.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University and has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina. She was recognized by the Missouri Press Association for her series on budget cuts in six adjacent school districts.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.