Turf’s up: Maintaining a healthy lawn during drought

Skokie homeowner Rachel Rosenberg stands next to her lawn, which she maintains with minimal water use. / Photos by Emily Cikanek

By Matt Nichols

When Skokie resident Rachel Rosenberg was pregnant with her first child, she had an epiphany: The chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides she was spraying on her lawn not only were environmentally unsustainable, but also potentially dangerous to her family’s health. That realization, 17 years ago, led Rosenberg to change the way she tended her lawn and garden – including dramatically reducing how often she waters.

Lawn watering is one of the primary residential uses of water, particularly during a summer when northeastern Illinois is in a drought and on track to notch a record number of 90-plus degree days. As the Chicago Tribune highlighted in a recent article, municipal public works officials are keeping a close eye on water supplies as homeowners’ use creeps up. Communities must maintain adequate water pressure to keep fire hydrants functioning and prevent backflows that can cause contamination; moreover, spikes in summertime consumption strain infrastructure capacity.

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From a regional perspective, the issue is made more complex: Northeastern Illinois has approximately 280 communities and Northwest Indiana about 80, each with its own outdoor water-use ordinance – despite that they are intended to protect the same shared local water supplies, such as Lake Michigan, and local rivers and aquifers.

To protect her family’s health and maintain beneficial soil microbes, Rosenberg does not use any chemical pesticides on her lawn.

The Metropolitan Planning Council has been assisting the Northwest Water Planning Alliance – about 80 northwest Chicago suburbs in Lake, Kane, Kendall, McHenry and DeKalb counties, working together to plan for a more sustainable water future – to examine local watering ordinances. It’s noteworthy that most local communities have taken some steps to manage their local water supplies through watering ordinances:

  • Of the 211 northeastern Illinois towns MPC researched, roughly half allow homeowners to water only on even or odd calendar days, depending on their street address.
  • About 80 percent of those towns also limit watering during the hottest afternoon hours, to prevent needless water loss due to evaporation and to help reduce strain on municipal water supplies during times of peak demand.
  • Of the communities surveyed, 16 have tiered ordinances that allow local officials to put in effect more conservation-oriented watering guidelines during droughts and water shortages.
  • Many include emergency provisions to enforce complete bans when necessary.

However, nearly 30 percent of the towns reviewed have no watering ordinances at all, making it difficult for these municipalities to manage residential water use and demands on public works infrastructure.

Inconsistencies in ordinances, even between communities that draw their water from the same source, are also problematic. For example, Arlington Heights, Palatine, Buffalo Grove, and Wheeling all receive their water from Evanston, which pumps it from Lake Michigan. Yet the four towns’ distinct watering ordinances complicate efforts to manage their collective demand for water, even as Evanston implements a water conservation plan. For residents, these inconsistencies can be confusing and send mixed messages about the importance of water conservation – unless, of course, like Rosenberg, they’ve already committed to sustainable practices at home.

Rosenberg points out that a natural lawn does not mean a brown, ugly lawn.

Property owners looking for tips to “go green and save blue” have a handy resource in the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Lawn to Lake program, which promotes healthy lawn and landscape practices to protect water resources in the Great Lakes region. Some tips:

  • Remember that even if your town has no restrictions, watering during the heat of the day is still wasteful. Sprinkling should be limited to early morning or early evening hours.
  • Grass only needs one to two inches of water per week, so plan your watering accordingly, even if your local ordinance allows much more.
  • Automatic sprinkler systems programmed to water during the night can put a strain on municipal water systems that typically recharge at those times, so consider cutting back on your scheduled watering during hot and dry periods.
  • If you are planning a new garden, ask your local garden center to help you select native perennials which require less water.
  • Make the most of the rainfall you do receive by installing rain barrels or a cistern to collect water that falls on your roof – water that you can later use for watering plants. Many communities offer rebates for rain barrel purchases.

As for Rosenberg, the changes she has made have been subtle but effective – though she is quick to point out that “natural lawn care does not mean no lawn care. A natural lawn does not have to be a brown, weedy, ugly lawn.” Indeed, while some of Rosenberg’s neighbors were doubtful at first, she has convinced several of them to try natural lawn care on their own properties. “Once they saw how nice the yard looked, their skepticism faded,” she says.

Rosenberg mows only occasionally during the summer to avoid stressing the grass.

She replaced some of her sod with native plants that require less water, and recommends rye or fescue seed instead of water-intensive Kentucky blue grass. Although she avoids synthetic fertilizers, Rosenberg feeds her lawn organic fertilizers two to three times a year to encourage a deep, drought-resistant root structure. Skokie does not have particularly restrictive water ordinance, and Rosenberg self-limits her sprinkler system usage above and beyond what is required. Even during dry spells, she only waters once a week using an automated sprinkler system that comes on early in the morning. In the worst drought conditions, homeowners committed to natural lawn care may have to let their lawns go dormant, but so far this summer she has not had to take that step, thanks to her investment in a healthy, sustainable yard.

“If you water less often but for a longer duration, you allow the water to soak in deeper, which encourages the grass to grow deeper roots,” Rosenberg explains. “Ultimately, an annual organic fertilizing cycle, correct watering habits, and proper mowing – keeping the grass at least three inches high – promote a healthy lawn that can weather droughts much better.”

Click here for a list of over 200 local watering ordinances from Addison to Yorkville.  Don’t see your town listed?  Your city or village hall will have the answers!

The WOWW Factor

90%

In the average American household, roughly 90% of water goes to non-potable uses, like watering lawns and flushing toilets.

1 inch

That’s all the water a typical lawn needs per week.  Depending on your sprinkler, 30 to 60 minutes of watering once a week – early in the morning or early in the evening – should be sufficient.

18 hours

Even the most stringent watering ordinances still provide more than 18 hours a week during which homeowners can water their lawns.

Conservation Tips

Use the right water for the job. Automatic sprinklers can be unnecessarily wasteful. Watering by hand makes it easier to reuse water from a rain barrel.

Maintain a healthy lawn with deep roots by applying organic, phosphorous-free fertilizer once or twice annually. Water only occasionally, but for a longer duration, to develop deeper roots.

Select native plants, which are adapted to the local climate and require less water during hot Illinois summers. The Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee offers neighborhood tours of native plant gardens in McHenry County to help show residents what’s possible.

During a drought or local water shortage, stop watering your lawn altogether.  With proper care in autumn, it will recover for the following year.  Focus on protecting trees and ornamental plants.

Resources

Lawns to Lakes

Safer Pest Control Project

An ‘uncommon’ farm blooms on restaurant’s rooftop

Rooftop garden makes rain a resource

Programs in Chicago and the suburbs help property owners save water, energy, money and the environment

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8 Responses to Turf’s up: Maintaining a healthy lawn during drought

  1. Fran Caffee says:

    Judging by the title “How to Maintain a Healthy Lawn During a Drought” I was shocked to read an artilce about someone watering weekly. A brown lawn is healthy, it is simply in a dormant stage and will be back as soon as it rains sufficient. If not, so be it. Your lawn will look like the rest of neitgbors who really know “what our water is worth”. Too much to use it watering lawns.

    • chicagolandh2o says:

      Thanks for your comment, Fran and yes, you are right! Brown lawns are healthy lawns, but for the bulk of people out there, it is a lot to ask to jump from (over)watering everyday to not watering at all. Watering once weekly, or better yet, measuring soil moisture and timing watering based on that is a huge improvement from daily or every-other day watering. One day people will understand that a brown lawn isn’t bad, but until then we want those who just feel like they must have a green lawn to do it as responsibly as possible.

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