The largest crop grown in the United States is not corn.
Farmers grew corn on just a paltry 14,281 square miles in 2019.
It pales in comparison to the largest crop estimated at 63,000 square miles — lawns.
Experts indicate lawns in the United States collectively would almost cover the state of Texas.
Lawns are a crop that humans cannot eat. Except for lawns that are in parks, sports field, and golf courses the only real purpose they serve are for eye candy.
Yes, they generate oxygen and can serve as effective dust control. But that was the function of grasses native to North America that rely on significantly less water.
Today yards, landscaping strips, and such are covered with grass that was brought to this country from Europe as well as Bermuda grass from Africa. The grasses were preferred over native grasses that tend to clump.
And nowhere do natural grasses clump as much as they do in California and the rest of the arid western United States.
Such grasses do not meet our collective visible expectations traced back to the 19th century when the Johnny-Come-Lately concept of homes with lawns started to take root in the United States.
The native California grass clumps. It also uses significantly less water. And it only needs to be “trimmed” once or twice a year.
Mother Nature is not an idiot. Nature developed native vegetation that could survive and thrive in the climate it has to work with.
Several years ago the University of California Center for Landscape and Urban Horticulture issued a paper to give perspective to the notion that tearing out and replacing non-native lawns was a smart move in perennially drought plagued California.
The authors’ bottom line is such a strategy would be a long-term failure. Their conclusion was based on reducing water use for lawns to shift it to basic needs of increasing populations would harden water use and leave no room for “easy conservation” in a drought.
That makes sense if droughts weren’t the norm.
The perspective was written in the middle of California’s last drought that stretched officially from 2011 to 2017. Here we are four years later some two years into another drought that already has dropped reservoir levels to the worst collective point than they were at the depth of the previous drought.
Climate change aside, we have ignored the natural hydrology of the arid western states and the wetter than usual aberration confirmed by science that existed between 1750 and 1950 when the seeds of modern development were sown in California and nearby states.
Droughts aren’t the exception. And there is only an infinite amount of water supply we can secure each year from snow, rain, and underground aquifers.
The reality check is rather simple. Sustainability requires that we don’t grow beyond the limits of cheap water.
If we are willing to pay the price we can push nature’s sustainability limits much like crews do on the space station. That means repeatedly recycling and reusing water even for drinking purposes just as astronauts do.
It would require paying a much higher price for water and letting go of the “yuck factor.” Rest assured if we weren’t paying pennies to water massive lawns the stomach for them would evaporate on its own without any government edicts or incentives to replace water guzzling grass.
This is an issue more unique to California and the West than places like the Eastern Seaboard and Seattle where rain can be almost a daily occurrence.
So how much water does grass consume of California’s developed water sources?
Environmental uses take 50 percent of developed water statewide, agriculture 40 percent and urban uses 10 percent.
Landscape water use statewide is estimated to account for 35 to 50 percent of the urban water use. Of that lawns account for 40 to 60 percent of the urban water that goes to landscaping.
The figure varies greatly because in San Francisco there are few patches of lawn and the cooler temperatures don’t scorch grass. Los Angeles has a lot of smaller residential parcels and multi-family units.
Big yards, or more precisely, ornamental front yards coupled with Valley heat is why water consumption per capita is higher in places like Manteca, Ripon, Turlock, Sacramento, Lathrop, and Modesto than it is in the Bay Area and large swaths of urbanized Southern California.
There are also other “little things” such as over-seeding long fescue — the preferred grass — with Bermuda grass and other grasses that use 20 percent less water. Those University of California experts conceded most lawns are over-watered. Turf replacement makes sense but so does not over-watering grass and using grass that is more tolerable to California’s climate.
California farmers, who have reduced water use and increased yields over the last 20 years, are focusing on strategies that will stretch the water they use. Reducing flood irrigation is at the top of their list.
It is important to remember all water users are in the same boat. For farmers it is a matter of staying afloat financially as well as meeting the challenge of feeding people.
Given droughts are really the norm in California and farmers that feed us are taking significant measures to make sure they can still do that as the years unfold, the very least those of us with yards can do is be more judicious with our watering and think about going native or using plants and ground covering that has less of an appetite for water.