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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Don’t need scary headlines to promote conservation

There are many good reasons to conserve water on your lawn this summer. Worries about a shrinking snowpack aren’t on the list, despite alarming front page headlines this week. Washington‘s watersheds have had higher than average snowpack in 14 of the past 17 years, including this year.

That’s why the baseline for measuring “normal” was increased by about 3% for the decade starting in 2021. Without the new baseline, today’s reported percentages would be even higher. As of Wednesday, the Natural Resource Conservation Service Snow Water Equivalent measurements for Washington watersheds range from a low of 146% of normal in the North Puget Sound to 1,850% in the lower Yakima Basin. The Spokane watershed is at 180%, and Upper Columbia and Pend Oreille are both above 197%. This year’s snowmageddon is courtesy of back-to-back La Niña patterns, a contributing factor to the trend of increasing snowpack in the Pacific Northwest.

Snowpack is not a problem. And based on the precipitation modeling forecast, the Department of Ecology dropped drought declarations in Western Washington and downgraded most of Eastern Washington to drought advisory status, mostly due to precipitation deficits holding over from last year. The drought emergency declaration remains for only five watersheds where predictions fall below a statutory drought threshold of 75% of normal. The Department of Health reported the impact will primarily be on shallow groundwater wells in the mid-Columbia region, not on municipal water supplies. And not on Spokane.

So why conserve water in the city if there’s not a drought emergency? Good stewardship of natural resources is always a wise decision and cities are notorious disrupters of natural systems. Hard surfaces in urban areas interrupt the water cycle, which relies on surface capture, biofiltering and slow release. Tearing out lawns in favor of xeriscaping with rock or mulch adds to the urban heat island effect and removes natural filters from the system. Maintaining lawns, rain gardens and grassy swales are key to a healthy water cycle, and sometimes they need watering.

The rules limiting watering hours passed by the Spokane City Council technically went into effect Wednesday, but stricter rules wouldn’t go into effect until next year, with the focus this summer on education. Not watering during the hottest part of the day or in a high wind sounds like good topics for education. But conserving water takes more than just turning off the tap, according to a city-wide schedule. The focus should be how landscape management is affecting the water cycle overall, and how do we best tailor watering schedules for specific locations.

Lawns have taken the hit for years as chemically dependent water absorbers, but there’s no need for lawns to be as toxic as we’ve made them, according to Randy Booker, founder of Turf Evolution Inc.

“They can be just as beneficial as a great meadow and will still pull carbon into the ground, stop erosion and cool the air. Lawns are too often tied up with toxic methods. They don’t need as much water as people think they do.”

Spokane has a great diversity of soil types, making one-size-fits-all watering recommendations frustrating for city residents. Booker has been a golf course manager and turf consultant for years and knows the challenges of maintaining green lawns on sandy soils. His work is one of the case studies in the upcoming 2022 documentary “Kiss the Ground,” and his focus is on bringing a regenerative agriculture framework to basic turf management.

Most discussion of water conservation focuses on quantity and timing. More important is the absorption and holding capacity of the soil combined with the right turf species. Kentucky bluegrass is notoriously drought intolerant, with shallow roots. Fescues have deep roots, chasing water more effectively in faster draining soils.

And instead of relying on chemical fertilizer, think compost.

“If you can build up your organic matter, then your soil holds more water,” Booker said. “If I just had a compost pile and not a big area, I’d go out with a wheelbarrow and shovel and scatter it like I was hand feeding the chickens.”

On a larger area, Booker suggested using pelletized compost and a fertilizer spreader.

“Take a step forward and start to incorporate organic matter,” he said. “Sand will hang onto a little bit of water but not for long, so increasing organic matter to increase water holding capabilities will let you water less frequently or just throw out less water each time you water. The end is the same – less water used.”

In a year when there is no drought emergency declared in the Middle Spokane Water Resource Inventory Area (which includes the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer), the city of Spokane may want to pivot to a more long-term vision and reconsider punitive water rates hitting poorer households hardest.

It’s easy to reschedule watering; it takes time to build organic matter to reduce the need. And if the trend of more frequent La Niña events with colder and wetter Pacific Northwest winters continues, we have time.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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