EDITOR’S NOTE: The Denton Record-Chronicle staff and graduate students from the University of North Texas School of Journalism under the direction of professor George Getschow worked more than a year interviewing people across Texas and researching the issue of how people are using water, the state of this necessary resource and how some are searching for solutions. The series launches an ongoing effort to keep readers informed about how the drought is affecting daily lives across the state and how some are seeking alternative measures to solve a growing issue as the drought continues and the state attracts more residents. Look for the “Water Woes” logo throughout the next week and coming weeks and months. And if you have any suggestions, ideas or stories of your own to share, please visit our special projects page on Facebook or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Dawn Cobb, managing editor
Dallas-Fort Worth area residents take pride in their lush lawns. They seed them, mow them, relax on them, play sports on them. But mostly they water them. Yet few of these lawn lovers realize just how much water it takes to keep their yard looking beautiful.
Turf grass, whether spread across a lawn, a golf course, a football field or a corporate campus, is one of the biggest water guzzlers on earth. To survive a sizzling summer in Texas, the average yard of grass consumes 125 gallons of water per 1,000 square feet a day. Turf grass consumes considerably more water than any other plant found in urban residential landscapes.
In 2000, the Land Cover Trend Project estimated that the Texas Blackland Prairies, which include Dallas, is covered with approximately 4,000 square miles (12 percent total land cover) of grass — a nearly 3 percent increase since 1992.
The Environmental Protection Agency found in a study done in 2009 that outdoor water use in Texas ranges from 50 percent to 70 percent of total water use, and turf grass uses the highest percentage of residential water used for irrigation.
The EPA also found that turf-dominated yards use 54 percent more water than mixed landscape yards using trees, shrubs and other plants. In Dallas County (population 2.5 million), where 950,000 homes and 436 parks, football fields and baseball diamonds are spread across 871 square miles, 340 million gallons of water are consumed per day.
Despite the prolonged drought, dryscape residences in Dallas County are about as commonplace as alligator ranches. If they had to choose, say, between their lush lawn and their Ford Explorer, most residents of Dallas County would send their Explorer to the junkyard.
Dallasites, who live atop a semi-arid desert, simply can’t imagine life without their lush green lawns, golf courses and corporate campuses. Texans say all that green turf laid across Dallas County and other major cities and suburbs showcases their can-do spirit and entrepreneurial flair in transforming their thirsty, sunbaked landscape into a veritable oasis.
Never mind how much water it takes. What matters is making the lawn and its owner look good.
“I don’t get that rock-yard look. I don’t want it at my house,” says Steve Padia, a Dallas homeowner. People take pride in how their grass looks and how it makes them look, he says.
What many may not realize is that the common grasses grown in their front yards — St. Augustine and Bermuda — actually originated in other climes. Bermuda grass originates from Africa and St. Augustine from pantropics.
Kentucky bluegrass hails from Eurasia and others are imported from Europe, says Mark Simmons, director of research and consulting in the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, an organized research unit of the University of Texas at Austin.
In a column published May 5 in The Dallas Morning News, Simmons writes that lawns, though a well-established and accepted tradition in the residential suburbs, soak up to 60 percent of drinkable city water. About 580 million gallons of gasoline are put into lawnmowers each year. About $700 million is spent on pesticides and $5.25 billion on fertilizers each year.
Since 2008, Dallas has received on average about 4 inches of rain during the fall and spring grass planting season, compared to 8 inches in Minneapolis, 15 inches in Miami and 10 inches in Washington D.C. But the lack of rainfall hasn’t stopped the march of turf grass across Dallas County.
During the last five years, growers and nurseries say their turf business has exploded, with more and more turf grass being spread each year across new home sites, golf courses, corporate campuses and even old landfills turned into sports complexes.
In McKinney, about 30 miles north of Dallas, even low-income houses get sodded. Wilson Fryar, the construction director of North Collin County Habitat for Humanity, has built more than 50 Habitat homes over seven years in McKinney and other areas of the county. He says McKinney housing inspectors require that all bare ground surrounding new home sites be covered with grass.
Fryar says there are big advantages to sodding their new home sites. Even with plenty of water, it takes about a month or more for grass seed to cover bare ground. But an entire lawn can be sodded in a few hours. Moreover, at a time when existing homeowners in McKinney are limited to watering their lawns once a week, Habitat homes with new sod can be watered for four hours a day, every day, for the first 30 days after it’s put down.
There is one hitch, however. Fryar says after many low-income families move into their new Habitat homes, they can’t afford to water their newly sodded lawns.
“Their yards get whatever the good Lord brings their way,” says Fryar.
By any measure, housing starts and commercial construction is booming, and that means the demand for turf should remain robust no matter how long the drought lasts. During the last three years, the Dallas Central Appraisal District estimates 8,483 new residences and 1,014 new commercial properties have begun construction.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin has been experimenting with several local native turf species, discovering a grass mix that does well in warmer, drier climates; goes dormant if rains do not fall; and does not require a lot of mechanical or chemical maintenance, Simmons wrote, adding that, in his opinion, an ecological lawn is not a pleasant alternative, but an urban imperative.
New golf courses are also sprouting across Dallas County. The newest course on the drawing board is the sprawling, 400-acre Trinity Forest Golf Course that will be built on an old landfill at Loop 12 near Interstate 45 in southern Dallas. The amount of water needed to turn that old landfill into a verdant golf course with shimmering green fairways is, well, rather mind boggling.
“Most people have no idea how much water it takes to build a single golf course,” says Steve Hutchison, who has built many golf courses all over the country.
Taken together, Dallas County’s six municipal golf courses and 38 private ones guzzle about 14 million gallons of water a day, more water than is used by the 1.5 million residents of Phoenix, Ariz., each day.
An average, 200-acre golf course, Hutchison says, requires “a huge amount of irrigation” to keep tees, fairways and putting greens looking like plush, emerald-green carpet. An average course, in fact, requires more than 3,000 gallons a minute, which can’t be achieved simply by plugging a hose into a municipal water pipe. It takes someone like Hutchison to do it.
When he was building golf courses, he says, “We dug our own wells. We dug lakes. We got our own water.”
But at a time when Texas and other regions of the Southwest are dealing with one of the worst droughts in history, Hutchison says using all that water to keep fairways and putting greens looking beautiful doesn’t make sense.
His company offers a practical solution: synthetic turf.
If Hutchison, 77, has his way, his state-of-the-art synthetic turf will supplant “the old” water-guzzling natural turf spread across new golf courses in Texas and other drought-stricken regions of the country.
Hutchison realizes that convincing tradition-bound golfers to embrace the concept of golfing on artificial turf is a mighty challenge, almost as mighty as convincing the Green Bay Packers to replace the “frozen tundra” on Lambeau Field with SportGrass, a combination of natural and synthetic turf.
But the Packers huddled around the idea and gave Hutchison the go-ahead to install SportGrass on Lambeau Field in 1999. Though SportGrass didn’t entirely live up to its promise (it didn’t actually eliminate water use or labor), Hutchison’s reputation as one of the early pioneers in installing synthetic turf on Lambeau Field served him well.
He ended up becoming a go-to “turf guy” for a number of major sports franchises in the country.
But today, the question some golf course developers could be asking is whether Hutchison’s TurfGrass is ahead of its time?
So far, Hutchison’s company, American Sports Turf Systems, hasn’t received a single contract to install synthetic turf on any golf course in Texas or anywhere else. Still, the synthetic grass entrepreneur remains bullish — not because golfers will come around to the idea of teeing up on synthetic grass, but because they’ll have no choice.
If the drought persists, Hutchison predicts municipal governments will outlaw water-guzzling natural turf grass in favor of synthetics.
“I’d be surprised if there are no synthetic golf courses in the next 10 years,” Hutchison predicts.
Indeed, some major natural turf grass companies in the Dallas area are already seeing their business squeezed by water restrictions imposed by the drought.
Frisco, for example, has banned landscape companies from tapping into their water hydrants to spray “hydromulch,” a slurry of grass seed, wood fiber, fertilizer and water that can produce a lush lawn in about two weeks.
But spraying hydromuch takes lots of water — more than 13,500 gallons per acre.
At a time when a relentless drought has cut water levels in Lake Lavon — Frisco’s water source — in half, the city has no interest in accommodating the needs of water-guzzling grass companies such as Bowden Guaranteed Hydromulch in Colleyville.
“Everything we do requires water,” says Ernie Parker, sales manager for Bowden. And that’s why Bowden’s business has taken a sharp downturn during the drought, Parker says.
As fate would have it, Bowden leases space inside its 6-acre warehouse and distribution center to Hutchison’s American Sports Turf Systems. Now, with Bowden’s hydromulch business on the skids, Parker finds himself thinking about the future.
“There will always be plumbers,” Parker says, “but landscapers and people like us could be out of work.”
And that’s why, with no end to the drought in sight, he says he might just follow Hutchison’s lead and start selling synthetic turf instead of the real stuff.