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Here's The Easiest, Most Effective Way You Can Save Water For California's Fish

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No longer justifiable | Photo: elinar/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Most of California is enduring a record drought, as anyone who hasn't been living in a nice moist cave will know. Last year's fire season is still in progress. The governor is encouraging us to cut our water consumption by 20 percent, with the veiled threat being that if we don't do it voluntarily, we may find ourselves facing mandatory rationing.

Even if we all cut our water consumption by 20 percent, California's fish still have a problem. Salmon advocates fear that low flows in the state's rivers may have already severely damaged salmon runs, and at least one fisheries watcher has told us that the Endangered delta smelt, whose population fell to its second-lowest level a few months ago, is "probably toast." Which means every bit of water we divert unnecessarily from the rivers does injury to the fish.

There's plenty of good advice online for ways to conserve water, as for example this list compiled by the Mono Lake Committee. Some of the tips are easy, some less so. Many of them require constant vigilance and habit-changing. But there's one thing you can decide to do right now that will make a big difference to California's fish, no matter where you are. And as soon as you decide to do it, you don't have to remember or change your habits.

That one thing: Let your lawn die. That's right, cut it off. No more water.

Outdoor landscaping accounts for somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 percent of all residential water use in California. That's an average, obviously. It takes more water to keep thirsty landscaping plants alive in the desert than it does along the north coast. One estimate has it that landscaping accounts for four fifths of residential water use in the Coachella Valley.

While thirsty California landscaping includes everything from bedding geraniums to potted orchids to water features, the single biggest consumer of landscaping water in California is the nearly ubiquitous lawn.

Much has been written about the inappropriateness of lawns in the California landscape. The short version is that it's an pastoral aesthetic imported from English mansions by way of eastern North America, a symbol of affluence easily adopted by people who weren't so affluent.

That's a fine stylistic choice in a place where water routinely falls out of the sky to water your lawn. In California, where even the wettest years require summer watering of most turfgrasses, it's an inappropriate imposition on the landscape.

I can't criticize people for wanting lawns, especially if they have kids. I used to install lawns for a living, in fact. The last one I put in, about 200 square feet in my former back yard in the Bay Area, went in primarily for my aged dog to nap on. (After he started napping under it, I replaced it with less thirsty garden material.)

But it's safe to say that the vast majority of lawns in California aren't a surface for play. They're strictly ornamental. Why else would everyone know the joke about guys my age and older telling kids to get off theirs?

Even in the relatively humid Bay Area, every acre of lawn needs about 1.3 acre-feet of water to stay green through the year. In the semi-arid Inland Empire that's closer to 1.65 acre feet per year, and 1.9 acre-feet per year in the desert.

Stats on how many acres of lawn there are in California are hard to come by. But with 6,883,493 single-family homes in California, and taking the Public Policy Institute of California's figure of around 7,000 square feet for a statewide average yard size, that works out to around a million acres of yard in the state. Assume half of it is lawn, and that's between 650,000 and 950,000 acre-feet of water a year to maintain it.

By comparison, LADWP's total water deliveries for the entirety of 2003 were around 610,000 acre-feet.

We could leave that 650,000-950,000 acre-feet per year in the state's rivers to keep beleaguered fish alive. Or we could spray it on a garden feature that few of us ever question whether we really need, whose main purpose is to persuade us that we don't actually live in California.

Check with your water company to see if they have a "cash for grass" program: you might be able to get rebates for pulling out your lawn (LADWP has one). This program offers Southern Californians a dollar per square foot or more. Plan to install a dry garden when the rains start in fall, assuming they do. (Don't plant new landscaping now: even drought-tolerant plants need watering when you transplant them.) Check out some of the abundant online drought-friendly gardening sites for ideas until then: water and gardening expert Emily Green's blog is as good a place to start as any.

But for now, let your lawn die, and don't replace it. Let this be the year Californians throughout the state finally abandon this inappropriate, exotic, and expensive art form. The salmon and the delta smelt will thank you.

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