Turfgrass skirts blame for water use, lets ag take fall

Turf irrigation uses 20 trillion gal. of water, or nearly 92% of agricultural water usage on an acre-by-acre basis.

It was an affirming revelation: Someone finally was speaking truth about what's really going on out there. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Several years ago, I wrote a column for Feedstuffs about land usage. The column addressed accusations regarding a claim that had gained traction on the internet stating: “While 56 million acres of U.S. land are producing hay for livestock, only 4 million acres are producing vegetables for human consumption.”

That's an erroneous claim. My column highlighted the broader picture about land use. The reality is that more than 212 million acres are committed to direct human usage, thereby making the 56-to-4 claim an innocuous factoid being leveraged as a value-laden proclamation. That's not new; it's just another example of activists twisting the perspective to knock down agriculture.

More pertinent to this discussion, the column pointed out, is that 40.5 million acres in the U.S. are committed to turf — be it lawns, sports fields or commercial properties — that: (1) require resources and inputs and (2) don't produce food. The activists' claim conveniently overlooks that fact.

At the time, I intended to address water usage in a separate column, but with too many issues and too little time, I never followed up.

Enter Stephen Dubner's recent Freakonimics podcast titled "How Stupid Is Our Obsession with Lawns?" As a result of what I mentioned above, I'm confident that I was the most avid listener of this episode.

Dubner's podcast included two experts who specifically addressed water. The first was Ted Steinberg, professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.

He explained: “It's not all that easy to grow (grass) here in the continental United States and especially in arid parts of North America. If you go to California, you'll find — still — lawns with cool-season turfgrass. Every square foot of that turfgrass requires 28 gal. of water, ... but that's for the coastal environment. If you move inland to a more arid part of California, that number increases to 37 gal. of water.” That's a lot of water.

What happens when you plug that requirement into the broader framework?

Dubner's second guest, Cristina Milesi, an independent environmental scientist formerly with the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, noted that the standard turf recommendation, especially where irrigation is required, is 1 in. per week. Based on her research, that equates to 20 trillion gal. of water per year! Yes, you read it right.

For comparison's sake, Dubner pointed out, “You want a little context for that number? Consider we use just 30 trillion gal. to irrigate all our crops.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture data confirm Dubner's estimate. An acre-foot of water is equivalent to 325,850 gal. The most recent USDA survey indicates that the U.S. has approximately 55.5 million acres of irrigated farmland. USDA further estimates that 1.6 acre-feet of water are applied to each acre (including horticultural acreage). That's equivalent to approximately 540,000 gal. per acre, so the math works out close to 30 trillion gal. for agriculture.

Meanwhile, the turf irrigation total of 20 trillion gal. equates to about 495,000 gal. per acre, or nearly 92% of agricultural water usage on an acre-by-acre basis. There's also the consideration of other inputs — but that's another discussion for another day.

Does this imply that we should be anti-lawn? Of course not. To the contrary, maintaining turfgrass is an important contributor to the national economy. Dubner pointed out that Americans spend roughly $60 billion annually on lawn supplies, services, etc. That adds up to a lot of jobs.

Using all of that water for grass, however, isn't helping us feed the world. The next time there's a drought that receives national attention (and there will be), perhaps we can have some honest discourse about water usage.

Unfortunately, agricultural irrigation often becomes the scapegoat when hard decisions have to be made, but it's too easy a target. We'd be better served by first looking in our own back yards.

*Dr. Nevil Speer is based in Bowling Green, Ky., and serves as vice president of U.S. operations for AgriClear Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of TMX Group Ltd. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of TMX Group Ltd. and Natural Gas Exchange Inc.

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