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Early lawn watering leads Utahns' wallets to spring a leak

Published May 17, 2017 7:31 pm

Irrigation • Residents along the Wasatch Front can minimize sprinkler use beyond Mother's Day.
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If you've already started watering your lawn, there's a good chance you've done little more than waste money, experts say.

Utah water managers say the state's northern residents can usually keep the sprinklers off until Mother's Day — and after that, sparse watering should suffice, depending on conditions.

Watering too early, or too often, does little good — while, in effect, costing Utahns collectively tens of thousands of dollars per day.

That's especially true this year, thanks to heavy snowfall and frequent rains, according to Josh Palmer, who oversees water-efficiency education for the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Palmer's office waged an aggressive social media campaign this spring, trying to warn Utahns that their "grass may be drinking too much."

The time of year also brings renewed interest in low-water landscaping, known as xeriscaping.

Magna resident Christina Slade said she took out all but about 100 square feet of her lawn three years ago. She doesn't miss the grass and only regrets she didn't redesign her landscape years ago.

"I love it," Slade said. "It's a little bit of work in the spring as far as clean up and weed control, but once I get that under control, it's easy peasy."

She said she gets regular compliments on her yard from neighbors.

Yet despite the benefits of xeriscaping, water-conservation campaigns and all this spring rain along the Wasatch Front, evidence suggests many residents and businesses have already begun ramping up their annual lawn-watering rituals.

The roughly 8,700 Salt Lake-area commercial and residential customers who buy water directly from the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District used an average of 50 million gallons per day in April, according to Linda Townes, district spokeswoman.

Typically those customers use 30 million to 35 million gallons daily in the winter when there's no lawn watering.

Those elevated usage numbers do not include Salt Lake County residents who get their water from other sources, such as municipalities.

Townes said customers collectively spent $37,400 per day on water they probably didn't need to keep their lawns healthy. That amounts to about $130 per customer for the month of April.

For all the public reminders — and yearly hikes in summer-season water rates — Townes said district officials see this pattern of water usage every year, regardless of the weather. Customers crank up water use predictably in late March or early April and continue to watering at roughly the same rate through the summer and well into fall months.

"This is something we've been trying to get people to not do forever," Townes said. "But as soon as we have a nice weekend, even if there is rain in the forecast, people think, 'Oh, I need to turn on my sprinklers.' But there is nowhere for the water to go, so the water is just wasted."

Townes said she likens the early spring watering to pouring water on a soaked sponge. Soils can retain only so much water, she explained, and spring rain and runoff often fill them to capacity. Plants don't need the additional water either and so don't absorb it.

Paul Johnson, a professor of turfgrass science with Utah State University's Center for Water Efficient Landscaping, agreed.

"The water now is not going to help in midsummer," he said. "It doesn't really bank. The soil only holds so much water, and that's not really enough to carry it further into the summertime."

Johnson, a resident of northern Utah's Cache Valley, sometimes starts watering his lawn as late as June, depending on the weather conditions.

But for much of the state, Mother's Day is generally a good start date, he said. And you can probably plan to turn your water off on Oct. 1 most years.

It's not just start and stop dates that Utahns need to pay attention to, Johnson said. A lot of water is wasted during the summer as well.

"Because often people will set their clocks based on the water needs in the middle parts of the summer, and that's running at the same amount from April to October," he said. "But in May, maybe even June, it could be reduced maybe a third, or sometimes even half, depending on the weather."

The Utah Division of Water Resources produces a weekly watering guide, Johnson said, which could help Utahns cut back on unnecessary watering. But the guide errs on the side of caution, he said — residents who are willing to pay closer attention to their lawns' condition could probably save even more by watering on their own schedules.

Townes offered three simple tests for water savings.

If you step on the lawn and it springs right back, it doesn't need water.

Residents also can check for soil moisture by pushing a screwdriver or similar tool into the soil. If it slides in easily, the ground already holds enough water to support the lawn.

The color of the lawn also indicates when more water is necessary, Townes said. The grass will start to turn a dull, grayish color when it's stressed for lack of water.

But a stressed lawn doesn't necessarily need water right away, Townes said. Carefully depriving it of moisture will lead grass to grow deeper roots and need less water in the future.

Johnson said residents could save more still if they checked their sprinklers for leaks or misaligned heads. And then leave the sprinklers off after testing them, at least until irrigation is needed.

And it's not wise to aerate waterlogged soils, he said, so there's no need to water the lawn before spring aeration.


Twitter: @EmaPen






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