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August 9, 2023

Turf Buyback: The 2023 Mirage of Conservation

The past two decades have seen an increase in policy proposals from state and federal legislators that aim to be more environmentally conscious. Turf buyback is part of many policy proposals that seek to conserve water. You may have heard of these programs on your local news networks or read about them on social media or newspapers. It’s quite a hot topic at the moment for many who are looking to reduce the impact that humans are having on ecosystems and the environment.  

Smart Rain feels that same responsibility that many others feel when it comes to protecting and conserving our resources. The creation, mission, and objectives of Smart Rain are to make sure that we use and conserve water responsibly.  

When we heard about turf buyback, we were so happy that others are looking to conserve water and protect resources. But after closer inspection, it seems we may be doing more harm than good. So, we decided to dive a little deeper.

So... What Is Turf Buyback?

To find the most accurate information on the topic, Smart Rain decided to find the most reliable sources to reference. To get a full picture of how turf buyback is affecting our landscapes and environment, we decided to turn to the experts. We sat down with Kelly Kopp, Professor at Utah State University, to discuss the deep impacts that these turf buyback programs have had on our landscapes. We asked her: What are turf buyback programs? And why do people think that is a good idea? Kelly Answers:  

“Turf buyback programs pay people and/or businesses to remove turfgrass from their landscapes. Theoretically, if you reduce the area of turfgrass, you save water. 

Turf buyback programs were initiated by water agencies (i.e., Metropolitan Water in Los Angeles and Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas). But these programs are going on in many locations across the country. Water agencies offer to buy back turfgrass areas to conserve water. 

Some people may think that turf buyback is a good idea. 

However, when these initiatives were being put into place, there was not a conversation between the water agencies and the relevant experts.  

For example, water agencies didn’t speak to turfgrass scientists. And these agencies missed out on valuable insight from people who have spent their entire careers studying one single category of plant material: turfgrass.  

Turfgrass scientists understand different varieties and species of turfgrasses, and study them in multiple capacities. And most importantly, turfgrass scientists understand the important environmental benefits that we receive from using turfgrasses in our landscapes and how to balance those benefits with the resources required to manage turfgrasses.” 

The popularity of turf buyback programs hits close to home here at Smart Rain. In Utah (where our headquarters is located), Govenor Spencer Cox is pressing forward similar turf buyback policies and programs. Water agencies and utilities companies have been pushing these programs hard. But have these organizations considered the future impacts of removing ecosystems from landscapes? 

“If I had to characterize the situation,” states Kelly Kopp, “I think water agencies put the cart before the horse when it comes to water conservation. By incentivizing people to remove turf areas and replace them with other plants or mulches, their idea was that they would save water. That has not necessarily been the case.” 

More Harm Than Good?

In our conversations with Kelly, the next natural step in the conversation was: what are some of the more harmful effects of these turf buyback programs? 

Kelly states:  

“I am very concerned about several things that have happened because of these turf buyback programs. For some context, I’m not only a turfgrass scientist. I do a lot of work with all aspects of landscaping and irrigation and I’m well aware of the different components and variables of a complete and full landscape. 

In California, savvy businessmen saw an opportunity to make money. Without considering the surrounding landscape, they began targeting homes and other properties in order to help people take advantage of the turf buyback programs. Keep in mind, these businessmen aren’t landscape experts.  

Damage to the environment was done.  

A lot of horrible landscapes went in, and a lot of trees died. This is because many trees that were planted in turfgrass areas used the irrigation that was being applied to the turfgrass. When the turfgrass was removed, the trees lost most of their irrigation water and couldn’t survive.” 

For Smart Rain, the turf buyback program is starting to look worse and worse. Ecosystems and food chains have dependencies. When one link of a chain is broken off, the whole chain can unravel. Removing large portions of plant materials will certainly come at a cost to the surrounding organisms. 

Kelly continues:  

“A colleague of mine also did some research on the heat island effects of transitioning natural grass areas to artificial turf as a result of turf buyback programs. Essentially, when you remove living, growing plant material, you lose a lot of the natural cooling that comes from that plant material and this research quantified the increased heat that resulted from removing natural turfgrass. 

Unfortunately, these knee-jerk, quick-fix, reactionary policies aimed at water conservation are having some very negative unintended repercussions.” 

In Arizona, the harsh truth about turf buyback programs was revealed in an unexpected way.  

Kelly states, “This is just another example of negative unintended consequences of these types of turf buyback programs.” 

In 2015, the popularity of turf buyback programs in Arizona was on the rise. Homeowners were looking to cash-in by removing the turfgrass and replacing it with xeriscaping. Research following the turf buyback initiatives found very high levels of nitrates that came from dead plant material. In many cases, landscapers or homeowners would kill the turfgrass and till it into the soil, leaving behind nitrates. Nitrates wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. Nitrates in landscapes inevitably float downstream to bigger bodies of water, creating algal blooms, which make these bodies of water uninhabitable for organisms and unusable for humans.

Should You Keep Your Lawn? 

It’s important to consider these factors when tearing out your lawn, or when thinking about policy that our lawmakers are pushing for at the ballot box. We believe the critique needs to be aimed at the approach and science behind turf buyback, not the intention. When speaking with Kelly Kopp, it becomes very clear that the turfgrass in our landscaping is essential, and impacts us much more than we think:  

“The primary benefit of landscaping, especially in the southwestern U.S. and other urban areas, is the atmospheric cooling that we get from plant materials around our homes, buildings, businesses, and schools. For example, in a recent study by Princeton University, “heat island” effects were monitored in several cities from 2004 to 2014. The city that was impacted the most by heat and had the highest overall temperature increase was Las Vegas. One crucial difference between Las Vegas and some of the other cities in the study is that Las Vegas has had turf buyback programs in place for several years. The city now also falls under a newer state law banning non-functional turf.  

Landscaping in our communities help keep them cooler. Which is especially important as we all are experiencing the effects of global warming.   

Another thing to consider is the water quality ramifications. There is a big push in urban areas to appropriately manage storm water. Turfgrass is perfect for this job because it’s amazing at retaining water. It also stabilizes soil, and slows the movement of storm water, preventing water from running on the streets, into our sewer systems, and into our fresh bodies of water.”

Tips for Watering Your Landscape 

With this critique of turf buyback, are we stuck with no solutions for water conservation in our landscapes? Kelly Kopp lets us know that there are handful of solutions that everyone can use to conserve water in their landscapes.  

“My approach is really helping people manage what they have more efficiently. That is the lowest of the low hanging fruit (although I hate that statement) but it is really the easiest thing.  

“What's not easy is: how you do that. It can be a pretty educationally-intensive process, but it's one that we're undertaking here [at Utah State University], again, with great effect. Some participants are seeing up to 20% to 30% savings. 

“A lot of the problem has to do with understanding plant water requirements. Make sure that the irrigation system that is in place is functioning and as efficient as possible and is appropriate for your landscape and plants, and then be aware of irrigation water requirements change over time.” 

Smart Rain knows this, because this is our business. Smart Rain is in the business of understanding how much water your plants need, when your plants need that water, and where your property can begin conserving water. Smart Rain works with you to understand your property's needs in order to make the most efficient use of your water.  

Kelly continues:  

“Interestingly to me—but I guess I shouldn't be too surprised—people don't necessarily know that over the course of the growing season, the water requirements of the landscape will change. Educating on this alone can help with water conservation.  

“Now, all of that isn't to say that people shouldn't make changes to their landscape if they want. There are low water use turf grasses out there that you can use to conserve water. Changes can certainly be made to your landscape, and it’s also a great thing that people are starting to think about water conservation. But we need to educate ourselves on the best solutions before we move to tear any landscaping out.” 

Some of the most important messages that we have received from working with Kelly are that green landscapes are good, and you can maintain turf health while conserving water. By educating others on the science behind the plant material in their native landscape, we can help property owners and managers better understand their water use.  

With that said, we believe Kelly rounds out this message well:  

“Conserving water in the landscape does not necessarily mean you have to rip it all out and start over. That's a real bottom line message that I would love to get out there! You can do better with what you have!” 

Kelly Kopp talks about the dangers of turf buyback
Prof. Kelly Kopp

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