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July 24, 2023

Grass Buyback in 2023? There May Be a Better Way

Recently, there has been a greater focus on water conservation throughout the country. Several states have ramped up their commitment to preserve one of the most important resources that we have. States like California, Utah, Colorado, and many other states are setting up—or have set up—grass buyback programs. California Water Service’s grass buyback initiative states:  

“Cal Water’s lawn-to-garden program offers a rebate of $3 per square foot of lawn removed. At least 50 percent of the grass removed must be converted to landscaping utilizing California-friendly, drought-tolerant plant material.”  

Utah Water Savers’ “Grass Doesn’t Belong Everywhere” initiative is similar:  

“Earn a cash incentive when you upgrade your thirsty lawn to water-wise plants, trees and shrubs. You’ll increase your yard’s curb appeal, decrease maintenance requirements and reduce water use.” 

Smart Rain couldn’t be happier with the forward thinking of states that are looking to conserve water. States that are in desert climates or in areas with a drought risk certainly need to put priorities on water conservation and it's wonderful to see states taking action.  

But is there a better way than a grass buyback program? 

Is a grass buyback program the right approach?  

A big belief by some is that some of your grass is ornamental or not needed. Because of this, you are able to take some of your grass away and that would theoretically conserve water.  

Kelly Kopp has a PHD in agronomy (Turfgrass Science) and is a professor at Utah State University. She has thoughts of her own on the grass buyback.  

“There is not an amount of turfgrass that is considered ornamental. All turf is functional in terms of providing ecosystem services, though it is often characterized by some as something that’s not even a plant.” 

All plants provide value and services to the ecosystem. Whether ornamental or not, all turf has an impact on the surrounding environment. Removing turf may do damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Dr. Kopp continues:  

“The situation is enormously frustrating to me as a scientist, but few utilities/people want the more complex (and effective) water conservation solutions that actually work. As I see it, all I can do is continue the research that demonstrates actual water savings and hope that that message gets traction too.” 

Many also feel that science is being left by the wayside as we are forgetting the surrounding ecosystems that will be affected with the grass buyback. Dr. Rebecca Grubbs-Bowling says that “action is outpacing science.” There seems to be a sentiment that we don’t exactly know what future impact turf removal can have on future ecosystems. Even though the straightforward message of grass buyback may be simple to understand and process for the public, it may not be backed up by science.  

Turfgrass is Good For The Environment

Turf has several benefits that may be overlooked as we are prematurely looking toward inefficient water conservation solutions like grass buyback programs. Turf provides fresh oxygen, captures rainfall, reduces stormflow and erosion, protects watersheds, filters pollutants, and more. But we lose all those benefits when we uproot our turf.  

To get a fuller understanding on what turfgrass does for our environment, we can follow food chains to know exactly how a grass buyback may harm ecosystems. For primary consumers, turf provides nutrients in the form of organic matter. This organic matter is fed on by fungi and bacteria that goes on to feed secondary consumers. These secondary consumers are organisms like protozoa, springtail, nematode, and mites.

As the food chain keeps going forward, higher-level consumers become more and more reliant on these secondary consumers for food. These are organisms like spiders, worms, beetles, and even further to birds, and moles. In a few short links in the food chain, we see how turfgrass is essential for all different kinds of organisms. Get rid of turf, and we can expect major consequences will come to surrounding ecosystems.  

Some of the other consequences of getting rid of turfgrass could be the impact on stormwater runoff. Turfgrass has been identified as an effective tool to help reduce stormwater runoff and prevent soil erosion. Turfgrass absorbs significant amounts of rainfall, allowing for less surface runoff and better water absorption into the ground.

Additionally, turfgrasses are able to slow down the speed of moving water, further reducing runoff and improving water quality. This is particularly important in residential areas where large amounts of impermeable surfaces—such as pavement and concrete—can lead to flooding. Turfgrass also helps reduce water pollution by intercepting pollutants from the air, including dust, pollen, soot, and other debris before they have a chance to enter waterways. 

Home illustration for a grass buyback blog article

Some states are already feeling the effects of homeowners getting rid of their turfgrass. In 2015, Arizona saw droughts and decided that they would provide incentives for those who tore out their turf and replaced it with more climate-appropriate vegetation. For Arizona, this means more xeriscapes. Xeriscaping is a type of landscape designed to dramatically decrease the amount of water needed to maintain your yard.

As these initiatives began to be put into place, a glaring issue began to appear. Xeriscaped yards contained higher levels of nitrate than normal turf yards. Irrigation transports nitrate to the soil and those nitrate levels affect the water quality. All of this led to algal blooms which wreak havoc on the aquatic ecosystems. Hannah Heavenrich, lead author of the study and a research specialist in the School of Life Sciences shares a similar sentiment with Dr. Rebecca Grubbs-Bowling:  

“Those larger entities need to keep in mind what those unintended consequences are. Is there a way to create a management practice that evens the playing field, making sure you get those monetary benefits and reductions in water use, but aren’t causing some other reaction?” 

Upon further research, it seems that the reason that these nitrite levels are so high is due to the process of removing the yards and lawns that were replaced by xeriscaped properties during these grass buyback incentives. Many people were removing their lawns by mulching their turf and leaving behind the dead grass. This caused the nitrite from the dead grass to run downstream into aquatic ecosystems, spelling bad news for everyone.

Removing a lawn properly can be very costly. There are several options, but doing it the right way will come at a cost to the consumer and may not be worth the money from the buyback, making the grass buyback programs ineffective and scientifically flawed.  

From what we can see from science, sometimes the best ideas—like grass buyback—on paper aren’t the best ideas in practice. We all have the same goal of reducing the amount of water we use, but we need to make sure that we are doing it correctly.

Smart Rain is a company that believes this at its core. Smart Rain believes that effective change needs to be implemented in the scientifically correct way. That is why we offer a solution that enriches ecosystems while helping you conserve water. Contact Smart Rain to see how you can hit your water conservation goals. 

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