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Saturday, May 04 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Why do we grow lawns in this desert?

By The Bakersfield Californian

It has taken a year, but I am finally in contention for best lawn on my block in the mow-it-yourself division. I'd surrender all of that glory in a second, however, if I could figure out a better use for my little patch of earth that didn't offend the neighbors or cost thousands to install.

Lawns are Americans' default position when it comes to maintaining buffer zones around their homes. Moats aren't very neighborly and crops will eventually require harvesting (i.e., actual work), so commercially engineered grass is the ground cover of choice across suburbia's vast expanses.

I like a lot of things about grass. The way weed-free fescue feels under bare feet in the morning -- that alone trumps the top three negatives on my list. But I've got a long list -- and it starts with the fact that we have no business planting lawns in the desert.

Lawns first became popular in the Middle Ages with the aristocracy of western and northern Europe, where the damp, maritime climates enabled cultivated grasses to thrive. In 1806, Thomas Jefferson grew an English-style lawn at Monticello, his estate in the lush green hills of north-central Virginia. By the 1870s, lawns were common at the homes of affluent Americans, and as the nation grew westward, farther from the humid, rain-rich, lawn-friendly East, the practice of planting lawns moved with it and was adopted by the middle class.

But the migration of lawn culture really should have been halted before it got southwest of the Continental Divide. We don't have enough water to consistently support population growth, commercial agriculture and natural habitats, let alone the aesthetic ideal of the gardens of Versailles.

Residential landscaping, primarily lawns, uses 50 percent to 70 percent of residential water in the U.S., according to a National Wildlife Federation report. And, as the journal Environmental Management has reported, the U.S. has more than 30 million acres of irrigated lawn, three times that of irrigated corn, based on a 2005 NASA analysis. "That means," the journal's authors wrote, "about 200 gallons of fresh, usually drinking-quality water per person per day would be required to keep up our nation's lawn surface area."

Now consider the fact that Kern County is facing the possibility of a record-low year for snow runoff in the Kern River basin. The projection is for 20 percent of normal, with a chance that it could drop to 17 percent. That would be the lowest ebb since water-watchers bothered to record such things.

I know: Our lawns aren't going anywhere. They're familiar, comfortable, conforming. They're a source of pride -- usually for the man of the house, whose domestic skills are often limited to barbecuing and the art of lawn fertilizer application. (Which brings up an entirely different issue.) Lawns certainly beat the alternative you'll often see in places like the Phoenix suburbs -- gravel. Or my favorite, green-painted concrete. But it's possible to have an attractive, neighborhood-consistent buffer around one's abode without buying in to the whole water, mow, leaf-blow, fertilize cycle of maintenance.

I put the question to my Facebook friends a few months ago and the response was surprisingly uniform: There's a better way. Water from lawn irrigation that doesn't evaporate percolates into the aquifer, but it brings with it chemicals from fertilizers and weed killers, which theoretically re-enter our lives through the tap. Better to convert to xeriscaping, an approach that focuses on drought-tolerant plants and minimal watering.

That's something I'll try to work toward over time. I could rent a backhoe and take it on all at once, but with that kind of power at my disposal, I might be tempted to just opt for a moat. And that wouldn't be neighborly.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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