Quest to save groundwater aims at love for lush, green lawns

Lush lawn
Mike Andrescik sits with his dog, Mya, in the well-watered front lawn of his Andover, Minn. home. Andrescik says he waters his lawn the old fashioned way, with hoses and sprinklers, and that process allows for better control and less water waste than the sprinklers systems on timers in his area.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Summer water bills that spike and cities that scramble to pump enough groundwater to keep neighborhoods lush and green, even during droughts, are nothing new in the Twin Cities.

But fresh doubts about groundwater supplies are testing long-held assumptions that water is both cheap and plentiful. New technology, more aggressive pricing structures and shifting attitudes are beginning to change how some Minnesotans view and care for their lawns.

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"I don't know that we're at a point where we can't have lawns, but as we watch the trends and the water supply and where our water is coming from, we might want to be more careful," said Dave Leuthe, a water conservation specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Residential water use varies widely in the Twin Cities. Andover, an Anoka County suburb of 30,000, is the biggest per capita user, according to an MPR News analysis of data the DNR collects from cities. In the five years ending in 2012, Andover residents used about 120 gallons of water a day, twice the amount Minneapolis residents use, for example.

That kind of discrepancy among cities makes lawn watering a prime target when Leuthe and other officials talk about conserving groundwater.

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"I don't know that we're at a point where we can't have lawns, but we might want to be more careful."

"Irrigation is definitely the biggest player on the municipal side," said Klay Eckles, public works director in Woodbury, another big per capita water user. "Anything associated with the irrigation side of things is probably your biggest ticket item that you can have the best chance of a major success."

Watering an Andover lawn
A lawn is irrigated with sprinkler systems in Andover, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Per capita daily water use

Household water use tends to be greater in outlying suburbs than elsewhere in the Twin Cities. Because lawn watering makes up a huge portion of water use, the figures depend heavily on lot size, tree cover and other factors. Click for details on each city. Most cities with more than 10,000 people are included. Figures are based on city reports to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which can be inconsistent. St. Paul, for example, doesn't include most apartment dwellers in the residential total it reports, lowering the per-capita use figure. Several other cities contacted by MPR News said they also include bigger apartment buildings in the "commercial" reporting category rather than residential. DNR officials say they are trying to standardize the way cities report the data to get a more accurate picture of residential water use. Golden Valley, New Hope and Columbia Heights get their water from Minneapolis but the rates for Minneapolis shown on the map do not account for use in those cities.

Lawn lifestyles

But it won't be easy to convince people like Mike Andrescik to cut back on watering. The Andover retiree's front lawn looks like one you might see on a magazine cover.

"Irrigation is definitely the biggest player on the municipal side."

"I put a lot of TLC into it. It's my hobby," he said as his dog, Mya, drank from one of his two sprinklers.

Andrescik hasn't needed to water as often this year, but when it's dry, he said he waters as much as every other day, both morning and evening. He said Andover lawns are thirstier than most because water drains fast in the sandy soil.

Most of Andrescik's neighbors also water regularly according to the city's every-other-day watering restrictions, and he said it shows.

Irrigating a lawn
A large lawn is irrigated in Andover, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"Seven to eight out of 10 people take a lot of pride in what they've got," he said. "It's a big part of why we're here."

Across the street, Charla Rochko said she's never contemplated not being able to keep her lawn green.

"It would be hard," she said. "I love to do the lawn."

For now, Andover isn't facing the groundwater pressures that others are, particularly in the north and east Twin Cities suburbs that tap a different aquifer for their water. In fact, Andover officials want people to water their lawns -- it boosts the water bills that allow the city to maintain its system. But utilities manager Brian Kraabel said the city also has to think about the future.

"It would be hard. I love to do the lawn."

"We still have to use it wisely, because you never know when things could turn a corner and go the opposite way," he said.

To keep up with demand on hot, dry days, the city sometimes pumps six times as much groundwater as it does during the winter, Kraabel said. A few years ago when city officials were concerned about being able to pump enough, they hired some college kids to drive around and enforce watering restrictions.

"We definitely had some repeat offenders," he said.

Supply concerns

Andover isn't the only suburb where residents love their lawns. The growing suburbs of Woodbury, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove and Lakeville are also pumping millions of gallons of groundwater for grass, and their growth has a lot to do with it.

Developers install sod when new homes are built, and it takes a lot of water to establish those new lawns. Newer cities tend to have fewer trees to keep lawns shaded. Yards are bigger than in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- it's one reason people move out to the suburbs in the first place. And those newer homes often come with built-in irrigation systems.

Nationally, a third of residential water goes to outdoor use, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. For those who water regularly to keep large yards green, that share can rise to more than half.

"I'm not going to say that brown is the new green or anything, but we need to start lowering our expectations for lawns."

But the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer that north and east metro suburbs use is showing signs of stress. Low water levels in White Bear Lake, which is connected to the aquifer, are the most visible sign that something is amiss. And experts say all those who use that groundwater will have to cut back to ensure there's enough to go around in the future.

Lawn irrigation
A lawn is irrigated at a home in the Snail Lake Landing development in Shoreview, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

In Woodbury, Eckles said the city expects to keep growing, but officials set a goal to keep total water use flat between now and 2030.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," he said.

Minnesota cities don't seem ready to pay people to rip out lawns to save water, as some communities in the Southwest do. But Woodbury and other cities have experimented with incentives for rain barrels, rain gardens and native landscapes. They are also working with homebuilders to give new lawns more top soil to help sod hold water better.

Eckles said it's a challenge to get people to change attitudes about their lawns. His city has handed out hundreds of fines in the past several years for watering violations.

"There's a cultural issue not just here in our community, but all around, where we like our green grass, and there's a cost to that," he said. "That's probably the one area where we could have the most headway, but it's also going to take a cultural shift."

Grass species
A variety of grasses are planted at the University of Minnesota research facility in St. Paul, Minn. The U of M is studying how turf species respond to various stimuli, including drought.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Grass alternatives

"Now it's almost like a badge of pride in some cases to not have a lawn that's so pristinely maintained."

Eckles is experimenting with one other possible solution at his house: a different species of grass recommended by University of Minnesota researchers.

Most Minnesota lawns have Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass. But turf test plots at the St. Paul campus, where researchers use a special mechanical roof to keep rain off, have shown which grass species tolerate drought the best.

Fescue, which includes both a coarse and finer variety, tolerates it pretty well, turf expert and extension educator Sam Bauer said.

"We're recommending them because they're lower maintenance, and they do well in the shade," he said.

For homeowners not interested in replacing their existing lawns, Bauer shares his method for figuring out whether the lawn needs water: Look for signs of your grass wilting. If your footprint stays on the lawn when you step on it, it probably needs some water.

And Bauer said most homeowners with automatic sprinkler systems are overwatering, because they have the system on a timer. And older systems might not have rain sensors, explaining why you can spot plenty of sprinklers going off when it's raining.

"Turn it off and use the footprint method, and try to tolerate a little bit of brown," Bauer said. "I'm not going to say that brown is the new green or anything, but we need to start ... lowering our expectations and so forth for lawns."

Culture shift

Cities across the metro area have implemented new rate structures in the past several years meant to encourage conservation. The more water you use, the higher rates you pay. Most city officials contacted by MPR News said it seems to be motivating people to use less, and they said the recession showed it's possible to pump less groundwater even in a growing community.

"Many people reprioritized things in their lives," Steve Albrecht, Burnsville's public works director, said of the recession.

But Albrecht, who in the past worked as a consultant for cities on water issues, said economic forces aren't the only thing pushing people to conserve.

"People are different than they were maybe 10 to 12 years ago," he said. "I think there's an understanding in our region that groundwater is not an unlimited resource, and that we need to be smarter about how we use it."

In Eden Prairie, utilities manager Rick Wahlen said he's seeing the beginnings of a cultural shift in his city.

"In the last few years we've seen brown yards where there never would have been that before," he said. "When I first got here it was all we could do to keep up. But now we're seeing more and more people aware and now it's almost like a badge of pride in some cases to not have a lawn that's so pristinely maintained."

Wahlen acknowledges there are still people who strive for the greenest lawn on the block. So the city decided several years ago to offer $150 dollar rebates to homeowners who install moisture sensors on their home irrigation systems. It's a newer technology that tells a sprinkler system when to go on based on the soil's moisture, rather than on a timer. Bloomington-based Toro makes one with a starting price around $120 dollars.

Studying grasses
Assistant professor Eric Watkins, right, and research assistant Garett Heineck examine turf samples at the University of Minnesota research facility in St. Paul, Minn. The U of M is studying how various turf species respond to drought. The roof over the turf prevents rain from falling on the grasses.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Water-saving technology

Conserva, a company born three years ago to help optimize irrigation systems, installed some cutting edge irrigation technology at a home in Eden Prairie just this week.

After auditing the home's 22-year-old system and assigning an efficiency score, company founder Russ Jundt figured out it was using more water than it should. For example, a broken sprinkler head plus a sloping front lawn led to water flowing into the street.

"That's just wasted water, wasted money," said Jundt, the company's chief operating officer. "Sometimes people think, 'well, I really like a green lawn and I can't focus on conservation.' Well, we are talking about conservation. We're talking about the right amount of water at the right time, and just doing what's right."

In addition to moving and fixing some sprinkler heads, Jundt and his technician installed a device loaded with 40 years of weather data specific to the ZIP code, an evapotranspiration sensor that will stop the system if it's raining and a Toro soil moisture sensor. Jundt said the new system should pay for itself within a few years because he expects it will reduce water use by 40 to 60 percent.

For a typical, suburban lawn, that's the equivalent of saving hundreds of gallons every time the sprinklers go on.

"Each [irrigation] event going around the house on a simple, 1/3 acre lot like this is 2,500 gallons. So if we can reduce that usage, that's a home run," he said.

Alternative sources

That typical daily suburban irrigation session uses about as much water as flushing a low-flow toilet more than 1,500 times. So some officials are also thinking about whether groundwater is the best source for that.

"The lawn doesn't need drinking water," said Brian Davis, an environmental scientist for the Metropolitan Council.

Davis said collecting stormwater for irrigation is seen as one solution, and it's already happening on some golf courses and athletic fields. The city of Hugo hopes to set up a stormwater reuse system for one of its townhome developments. In some drier places elsewhere, residents are encouraged to water lawns with greywater captured from their laundry and shower drains.

Leuthe, of the DNR, said one of the first steps is to get a better handle on how we use and manage groundwater. A retired deputy director of the DNR, Leuthe was hired back by the agency a year ago to help establish a water conservation framework that can serve as a statewide guide.

One step involves the data the state collects. The water use data analyzed by MPR News are imperfect, because cities report their water use to the DNR in different ways, and many cities' per capita residential use is probably higher than reported.

"I think we will continue to encourage them to look at the data, collect more data, look at what additional data they may need from users to better understand and figure out where to get efficiencies, because I think every community will be different," Leuthe said.

For example, cities with crumbling infrastructure might see leaks, not lawns, as the low-hanging fruit, he said. But Leuthe said doing nothing is not an option.

"We're starting to see some of the edges of where there's not enough water to go around for all people, all uses, all the time," he said. "We need to start analyzing how we're managing it and what we do with it and take more and better care of it so that it's available for everybody."