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Kelly Evans: Pass on grass

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

We got the message just over a week ago: Stage III Water restrictions. Please stop all lawn watering and turn off your automatic sprinkler systems for the rest of the week. Water Storage Tank levels are at critically low levels. Any lower and fire protection systems are in Jeopardy, and a boil water advisory may need to be issued.  

Turns out, the first hot day we had up here in the Northeast, everyone turned their sprinklers on extra, and our town's water tanks saw a 19-foot drop in the morning as usage spiked to double normal levels. (We're only supposed to water twice a week, early in the morning, as it is.) 

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It's amazing how much total water usage in this country is simply to keep grassy lawns green. We had just learned all about this in the spring, when my husband and I showed up to a library talk to hear the local water company offer "best practices" for water conservation. We were the only ones who showed up. "Let your grass grow longer!" They said. "Put in more native plants! Keep your showers to five minutes!"  

I asked, because we have some long showerers in the family, how much shorter bathing would really help conserve water. The answer, it turns out, is not much. The lion's share of residential water usage is for keeping grass green, and much of it is wasted in the form of runoff. Our Diana Olick actually just profiled one company, Irrigreen, which is trying to use "smart sprinklers" to lower waste.  

Armed with this knowledge, I texted our landscaper. Can we mow every other week this year? I asked. Longer grass means longer roots, I had learned, which lessens the need for constant watering. Nope, he replied. My guys have to work every week. Not wanting to hurt his feelings (or our relationship) by shopping around, I decided I would just mow the grass myself then. Our yard is flat and pretty small. How hard could it be?  

Well, as my Instagram followers know, it's not that it's hard to mow, per se--especially with our snazzy new Costco electric lawn mower. It's just hard to find the time. Keeping your grass green is a pretty big commitment. Should we just get rid of it? I wondered. But what would you even put in? Plus, it's lovely when the kids are running around on it for all of an hour or two every week. (The driveway seems to be a much bigger hit with the under-six cohort.)  

Point being, I look around at all these green, grassy, empty, water-hungry lawns and think they must be living on borrowed time. Not to mention all the fertilizer and pesticides involved, which also create runoff issues and kill native species. And while I've added a bunch of native plants this year--good for the bees!--I haven't actually shrunk the grassy area to do so.  

So I was struck by what the CEO of housing developer Howard Hughes Corp. told us on the show yesterday. They're embroiled in a controversy over their Phoenix-area mega-development, where upwards of 100,000 homes are planned but a groundwater permit is needed to access local water to complete the buildout. I asked the CEO if he's concerned about there being enough water to support the project. As you might expect, he said he's not.  

Interestingly, he mentioned that in their Nevada development, Summerlin, water usage is lower now than it was a decade ago, despite its massive build-out. The company began restricting lawn areas twenty years ago, allowing no front-yard grass, and only 50% of rear and side yards to be either grass or pools. Low-usage indoor appliances and "water-smart" plants have also long been required. In Arizona, they'll do the same thing, he said, and if you need grass to play on, you can use the common parks. 

And amazingly enough, while Arizona's population has grown from about a million to more than 7 million people as of 2017, water usage has actually decreased since the 1980s thanks to groundwater management efforts like these.  Our problems in the Northeast are a bit different; population growth has been less dramatic, but water systems are still under strain as they try to eliminate PFAS and upgrade infrastructure all while supporting the ever-growing need to keep lawns (and hydrangeas) looking nice.  

Up here, too, it's hard to imagine towns ever saying cut back on grass! Play in the park if you need to! But I wouldn't be surprised, as severe heat becomes more common and persistent, to see us start to tiptoe in that direction.  

See you at 1 p.m! 

Kelly 

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Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans

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