July 6, 2022
by David Goldstein
Last week, on a nationally televised show, news-based comedian John Oliver criticized a local response to drought. Oliver’s diatribe, viewed on YouTube over 2,760,000 times as of last Tuesday, called study of a suggestion to tow an “iceberg in a diaper” to Ventura County “monumentally stupid” and an example of how Americans living in arid regions have not appropriately planned for water shortages.
Actually, the iceberg initiative was just one of eight drought responses considered by a consultant hired by the Ventura City Council way back in 1990. Rather than an example of stupidity, it could be an indication of how extensively alternatives were investigated before we arrived at our current state of water shortage.
Local governments and water purveyors countywide have responded to the current drought with far different measures, including restrictions on outdoor watering. In areas with the hottest climates and the most reliance on the Metropolitan Water District, restrictions include not just limiting outdoor watering to one day per week, but also limitations on the duration of this watering, the flow rate of sprinklers, and a ban on runoff.
In these areas, the amount of water possible for application to lawns is far less than the amount recommended in a Lawn Watering Guide for California, put together by the University of California, Davis and sent to me two weeks ago by John Fonti of Newbury Park. Consequently, one local drought response measure will likely be widespread browning or replacement of lawns.
Indeed, according to Dr. Jim Downer, a University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor who specializes in turf grass and is based at the university’s Ventura office, some lawns in some parts of Ventura County will not just go dormant; some lawns will die.
Downer, like most dedicated scientists, provided several caveats. As detailed in his gardenprofessors.com blog, the wide range of turf grass varieties and species will respond differently to
water deprivation. Warm season grasses, including Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass, and Kikuyu can survive conditions deadly to cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass and tall fescue.
Unfortunately, tall fescue is the variety used in Marathon Sod, which is common in Ventura County. “If we get the expected hot weather, in areas with tough watering restrictions, this grass will die and it won’t come back,” said Dr. Downer.
“In contrast,” he continued, “Kikuyu grass can survive months with no applied water, especially on the coast, but even in hotter parts of Ventura County.” Similarly, Buffalo grass can survive “by being brown nine months of the year,” and Bermuda grass “can come back after dying in dry ground, all the way back to the stolon.” Downer was referring to an underground stem capable of regenerating a lawn after rain returns or watering restrictions ease.
Rather than maintaining lush expanses of green year round, Downer suggests people limit lawn size and think of lawns as a seasonal garden. His own garden, in Ojai, previously had 1,000 square feet of grass. He reduced it to 100 square feet of St. Augustine grass shaded by trees and watered only when the trees are watered. The rest of his yard is now a seasonal meadow. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, die and set seed for the next year.
Additional variables for grass survival include shade, slope and soil type. Loam is the best soil. Clay soil holds the most water but does not make it as available to plants. If you have sandy soil, especially if you previously watered too frequently for your grass to develop deep roots, then you have another reason to consider turf replacement, rather than hope for grass survival.
To find turf replacement incentives in your area, go to the website of the purveyor to whom you pay your water bill. As a baseline enhanced by some local purveyors, incentives through the Metropolitan Water District include $2 per square foot rebates for replacing turf with a specified list of options. The options must include three plants per 100 square feet, a stormwater retention feature, and replacement or modification of spray sprinklers. No hardscape is allowed, other than permeable materials, and synthetic turf is not allowed.
This prohibition on incentives for synthetic turf is replicated by other local water purveyors in Ventura County, in part because some people use water to cool or clean the plastic. Taking issue with this prohibition, Jack Sheehan called me last week and reported, “Fake grass has always been a great way to save water and still have a lawn.” Mr. Sheehan, an 84-year-old, moved to a Camarillo retirement community a year ago from Indio, an even hotter climate, and said his artificial turf never got so hot he was tempted to water it. He also explained the innovative way he cleaned it and “freaked out neighbors” who knew his grass was artificial. He set his lawn mower blades high and used it like a vacuum cleaner. Mr. Sheehan still maintains a small patch of artificial turf, but now he uses a leaf blower.
Taylor Dederick, who lives in Thousand Oaks and recently graduated with a degree in Environmental Science from California State University, Channel Islands, last week emailed me with some great suggestions for lawn replacement. “Consider a combination of succulents, which . . . tend to flourish year-round [or] consider creating a pattern with decomposed granite, wood chips, rocks . . . and native plants.”
When reworking your garden, using mulch and compost are important measures for soil health and water retention. Locally, Agromin and Peach Hill are the main sellers of both. Their decorative walk-on bark is a by-product of fir trees used in paper mills, and both also have attractive mulch ground cover made from recycled wood and brush collected from local trimmings, which can go over a dead or dying lawn.
David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.