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Shawn Vestal: If you think lawn care stinks, Spokane has a program for you

Another summer, another season of cursing my lawn.

It’s spotty and lumpy. It’s patchy and mossy. It soaks up water like a giant sponge and shows no visible gain in lushness. We have tried things to improve our lawn and there are things we still could try, but as the days of dragging hoses and setting sprinklers and fertilizing (or failing to fertilize) and feeding (or failing to feed) and mowing (or failing to mow) and sustaining all the little live things in the yard have returned, I’m already fed up.

Lawns suck.

Even if you like your lawn – even if yours is a cool, plush carpet to which you relish devoting unreasonable amounts of time, money and natural resources – it literally, actually sucks: It inhales water like crazy. Our city’s water use quadruples in the summers, mostly as a result of our efforts to keep fields of green grass alive in the middle of a desert.

The typical county resident used more than 280 gallons per day, on average, in 2017, according to a new set of statistics from the Community Indicators Initiative of Spokane, a project of Eastern Washington University. Outdoor watering is the biggest single factor driving usage; in Valley districts, where lot sizes are generally bigger, average daily use was more than 140 gallons a day higher.

But more and more people are giving up their lawns, for reasons of cost, convenience and environmental sustainability.

Instead of fighting to keep their lawns alive, they’re killing them.

When Julian Mora and her partner, Jeremy Gordon, moved to Spokane and bought a home on the South Hill almost two years ago, it had a nice, small front lawn. Both are professors in the communications studies department at Gonzaga; they had moved here from the Tampa, Florida, area, where “everything is green and nobody has a sprinkler system,” Mora said.

At first, they liked their new lawn. After their first summer of mowing and pulling weeds, they changed their minds.

“We were like, ‘Ugh – I wonder if we could just rip it out,’ ” she said.

They could, it turned out. Prompted by a mail flyer from a city program that offers a bill credit for people who ditch their turf or otherwise reduce irrigation, the couple hired a landscaper to scrape off their turf and replace it with plants that are drought-resistant or native to the region – a process known as “xeriscaping.”

Now their front yard is landscaped with tall grasses, lavender, salvia, asters and other plants, in a deep bed of wood-chip mulch. You can get from a lawn to that type of landscaping in a variety of ways, and the cost varies greatly by how much of the work you do yourself. Mora and Gordon hired a landscaper to do the work, and added other touches like a piece of outdoor art; they paid about $9,000.

The city of Spokane is encouraging homeowners to replace their lawns with drought-resistant landscapes, or take other measures to reduce their outdoor water use. Even if people don’t want to completely remake their lawn, they can save a lot of water by using more efficient equipment or paying closer attention to how much they water.

According to the Water Resource Foundation, nearly 17 percent of homes use more water than they need for outdoor irrigating. If excess irrigation could be eliminated, the average outdoor use would drop by 8,200 gallons per house, or by 16 percent.

The city program offers bill credits up to $500, depending on the lawn size and other conditions.

Kristin Zimmer, outreach coordinator for the city water department, said there are several reasons to encourage water conservation here. Though we draw on a well-supplied aquifer, as the population grows, our water usage has the potential to affect the way the Spokane River and the aquifer recharge each other. The city also hopes to avoid expensive upgrades of the water system from rising water use.

The city’s “Spokanescapes” program to encourage drought-tolerant landscapes gave out bill credits to 24 households last year, out of 50 applicants. This year, more than 60 households have applied, Zimmer said.

Zimmer said that outdoor watering is by far the biggest factor in water use in this area. One might wonder whether, given the fact that we only water lawns in the summer, something like showers might account for the most water down the drain.

Might hundreds of thousands of people showering every day exceed the water we pour onto our lawns?

Zimmer scoffed audibly.

“No,” she said. “No way.”

It’s the lawns.

Mora and Gordon replaced their turf last fall. Their yard now includes a large rusted metal ring repurposed as an art piece, and a walkway to the back yard – where they still have some grass, along with a large patio area, fruit trees and other greenery.

It resembles other such yards that have popped up around town with growing frequency in recent years. In Mora’s neighborhood, signs of xeriscaping – or partial xeriscaping – are common; more and more people are starting to scale back on the amount of turf they’re keeping on life-support, if not completely getting rid of their lawns.

Across the street, one of her neighbors has a flourishing xeriscape-ish yard that was there when Mora and Gordon moved. The changes are taking root, slowly, here and there, one tuft of Idaho fescue at a time.

The best part?

“We don’t have to mow!” Mora said.

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