Does your Rain Bird no longer fly? Are your PVC pipes feeling neglected? Has your city hung your lawn out to dry and given your timer a time-out? If so, you probably live in a place that restricts landscaping watering. Due to devastating dry spells, dozens of cities have implemented ordinances aimed at water conservation.
When I grew up in Atlanta, it was so rainy a fish could survive on land, but when I visited last year, I found straw-like lawns and a watering ban. In Los Angeles, where I now reside, the City Council has implemented a partial ban: residents are restricted to two days per week for outdoor irrigation and no more than 15 minutes per watering station.
I understand the need to conserve and have always been a “waste not, water not” woman, whipping the faucet on and off while teeth cleaning as if water were pricey champagne. In my college dorm, I won the coveted “Snappy Shower Award,” and I treat my dishwasher like a roller-coaster ride: it doesn’t leave the station unless it’s full.
However, when it comes to my yard, a middle ground is unachievable if it means a dead ground. My religion and moral value system require healthy greenery, which in turn, benefit the animals and insects who depend on my yard for sustenance. I live in a fire hazard zone in Woodland Hills—the most sweltering part of LA—where watering two days per week is as effective as healing third degree burns with a Band-aid and where dead foliage is an invitation for flames to “come up and see me sometime.”
My lot—which abuts undeveloped acreage—may appear fully suburbanized, but it serves as an oasis for rabbits, bees, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, gophers, snakes, bees, owls, and birds of every kind. Saint Francis of Assisi would not want for feathered friends.
I am not a Christian like Assisi, but practice Jainism, which is often described as the world’s oldest living religion, originating in India around 500 BC. Adherents follow the principal of “ahimsa” or non-injury to all living beings. Although practically-speaking it is impossible to be perfect, a Jain does her best to make sure no living being is injured by her action or inaction. Compassion is extended to mammals and reptiles as well as flowers, grass, insects and trees. As a Jain, I have a duty to protect the life forms on my property, and any ordinance which interferes with this is at odds with my First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
How interesting it would be for this water-related dispute to percolate into court. Santeria—a religion with Afro-Cuban roots which has approximately one million followers in the U.S.—condones killing animals in ritual. In 1993, Santeria adherents in Hialeah , Florida won a “free exercise of religion” case: the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the religion and against a local ordinance, which sought to ban animal sacrifice. Although the case had an unfortunate outcome for nonhuman victims, it illustrates the power of the First Amendment. One must assume the Supreme Court would protect the critters in my yard under the same rationale used to deny them protection in Florida .
Apart from religion, my moral value system dictates that I maintain a verdant yard. I hold that all living beings have interests, as evidenced by their efforts to flourish and survive and to disregard these interests would be arrogant, self-serving and speciesist. Speciesism is a form of prejudice, much like racism or sexism, in which humans deem themselves superior to other species. To adequately recognize the innate value of nonhumans—which policy-makers rarely do—and shake off speciesism, our democracy would need to be more like an omniocracy or government with representation and consideration for all living beings. An omniocratic system would, at the very least, be mindful of the needs of other species before intercepting their lifeline with an overly restrictive water ordinance.
Some LA City Councilmembers—as well as misguided environmentalists—suggest homeowners rip out their grass and lay synthetic turf in order to save H2O, despite the exorbitant cost. It is $7000 for 600 square feet. This would, of course, solidify Tinseltown’s image: plastic surgeons could have plastic yards, and every street could look like a movie set. But real grass is essential because it serves as a carbon offset, absorbing 13.2 million pounds of CO2 per year. One would have to plant and maintain 1861 trees for a decade to compensate for a football field of fake turf.
Artificial grass is not what I would call “environmental” or “animal friendly” with its lead-content problems, the extensive energy and raw materials needed to produce it, and the risk that synthetic materials may leak into the water table and that rubber infill crumbs may become airborne and inhaled. Installing make-believe grass is akin to moving your home office onto the driveway in order to save a light bulb. In addition, horrifying images come to mind: rabbits ingesting green shag fibers and tiny life forms roasting under an airless blanket of toxins. Turf temperatures can climb to 160 degrees on summer days.
As a vegan, I could maintain a lush, English garden at my home and still use less water than a meat-eater in a condo, a fact the ordinance fails to take into account. It takes 300 gallons per day to produce vegetarian food, while it takes 13 times more—4,000 gallons—for a carnivore, the difference between night and day or a bathtub and a pool. This is because it is so costly water-wise to raise and feed each of the 55 billion farm animals slaughtered for food.
Apparently, not many sprinkler scofflaws or hose hogs exist. Officials in both Los Angeles and Atlanta have revealed significant declines in water usage since their ordinances were put into place. There has been an 11% reduction in LA since June, and residents consume the same amount of water today as they did 25 years ago, despite a population increase of over one million people. Atlanta has realized a 20% reduction over the past eight years despite a population boom of 30%.
It is hoped Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities will continue to explore and implement conservation alternatives, when viable, such as desalinization processes, smart irrigation systems, recycled water programs, urine diversion toilets, groundwater replenishment systems, and rainwater capture plans.
In the meantime, I hope you will conserve when you can. But don’t let the water ordinance rain on your parade or kill your “living yard.” Lots of creatures count on you.
Published in the Los Angeles Daily News in September 2009 and in The Simon magazine in September 2009.