STILLWATER – California headlines read “Severe Drought” and “No More Water.” In Nevada, officials worry about city expansion and water supply.
One solution, proposed alongside methods like geoengineering precipitation and catching fog, is turfgrass removal. Highlighted as affordable and environmentally conscious, western states are offering rebate incentives for homeowners to replace turfgrass lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes.
While removing turfgrass might be a viable solution to water woes in California and Nevada, is it a good idea for Oklahoma?
Justin Moss, assistant professor and Huffine endowed professor of turfgrass science at Oklahoma State University, does not think so.
“Before everything around here was developed, you would have seen miles and miles of grasslands,” Moss said. “Because grass is native to the state, it is counterintuitive to remove it.”
According to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, the northwest and southwest regions of Oklahoma are home to a wide range of native grasses, including buffalograss, blue grama and curly mesquite.
“You get up to the panhandle and the whole western part of the state and what you’ll find are native grasses,” Moss said. “If we can get into the natural landscape mindset, we would be a lot better off.”
Dennis Martin, OSU Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist, said lawn and turfgrass removal is not necessarily a practical approach to drought situations in Oklahoma.
“When lawns are well cared for they’re probably going to come back through about 90 percent of droughts and be fine with some recuperation time,” Martin said.
Instead of putting emphasis on turf removal during a drought, Martin said the concept of dry-land lawns should be emphasized instead.
These lawns are nonirrigated or irrigated only during establishment and then allowed to go dormant.
According to The Lawn Institute, dormancy is a normal reaction to rising temperatures and decreased water availability. Allowing grass to go dormant will turn lawns brown but can reduce water use and maintenance costs.
Martin said, along with dry-land lawns, he would like to see Oklahomans embrace different landscaping options before considering turf removal.
“I believe more in diverse landscapes where there are a lot of different plant materials which develop interest in that landscape,” he said.
One form of landscape diversity is xeriscaping, defined by National Geographic as the practice of designing landscapes to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation.
Mike A. Schnelle, Charles and Linda Shackelford endowed professor and OSU Cooperative Extension floriculture specialist, said correctly designed xeriscapes require little compromise and present a simple, water conscious landscape option for Oklahomans.
“If people can embrace the literal definition of xeriscapes, they would find most of their favorite plants could still be utilized,” Schnelle said. “In other words, Oklahomans could still grow a myriad of plant materials beyond just cactus and succulents.”
Schnelle said xeriscapes should be zoned whereby plants with like water needs are grouped together and irrigated accordingly.
While turf removal programs may be a sustainable solution for California and Nevada, there are other options available in Oklahoma to maintain an attractive landscape while reducing water use in times of drought.