On Sod Farms, Grass Is Greener Without Water Waste : Operations that provide lawns for California homes use river runoff for irrigation.


When you drive through the Oxnard Plain around where Pacific Coast Highway crosses Hueneme Road, have you ever noticed the huge swards of emerald green lawn reaching to the horizon? But there are no houses. Instead there are big, busy lawn sprinklers spread out all over the place. It’s all a bit surreal.

I began to wonder about the environmental impact of such goings-on.

It’s no mystery that they’re growing sod for the lawns of California--our county is sort of famous for having the biggest sod farms in the nation. But when you see it going on before your very eyes, your mind might wander to questions about water shortages or the on-again, off-again trend toward low-cost, low-maintenance landscaping.

I called an environmental watchdog group in Sacramento, the Water Education Foundation, and got a surprising response. “You can do more to save water by eating Chicken McNuggets than by covering your lawn with adobe,” quipped Rita Sussman, the foundation’s executive director.


She went on to explain that California’s use of water for pasturage and alfalfa (cattle fodder) consumes 10 times as much water as all our private lawns, parks, golf courses and sod farms combined.

The process of raising and processing the contents of a single beef burger requires more than 600 gallons of water. But a chicken sandwich or other four-ounce serving takes only about a quarter as much (165 gallons). And then, of course, there’s the tendency that Californians have--or used to have--to over-water their home landscaping by twice what’s necessary.

So when I called one of our local sod producers, Pacific Sod, I was not surprised to hear their spokesperson, Lee Williams, say, “Grass and sod don’t waste water--people do.”

That’s self-serving, of course, but it checks out to be true. Especially in this county. We’re not going to have to switch to a diet of chicken burgers hereabouts to accommodate our local sod industry and the jobs it represents.


Sussman made a point of this. “In your county, you deserve to be proud of the way you’re using water,” she said.

It seems that our local Freeman Diversion Project--which keeps the Santa Clara River runoff from just flushing out to sea--is the source of the wet stuff that’s being used for agriculture, sod farming included, on the Oxnard Plain. The reclaimed water is pumped directly into the subterranean aquifer beneath the plain to recharge the wells the farmers use. And in the case of Pacific Sod, this reclaimed, untreated water is piped directly to the sprinklers in the fields.

According to Fred Geintke, general manager of the United Water Conservation District, the water collected by the diversion project actually doubled the county’s supply of water over the last few years--but it’s used mostly to support agriculture. That means the sod fields aren’t competing with our kitchen sinks and bathtubs.

Elsewhere in California it’s different. Communities served by the state’s system of aqueducts and pipelines have to make choices like King Solomon--which of the contending petitioners gets the baby--in this case, the water. Mostly, communities divide it three-quarters to agriculture and one-quarter to urban uses, including industry.


But in Ventura County, we collect and save river runoff for agriculture. But what about the sod after it’s rolled up off the Oxnard Plain and sold to folks in Simi and Thousand Oaks? There, it has to be maintained with tap water. Isn’t that wasteful? Shouldn’t we all switch to rocks and cactus for the lawn?

Sussman pointed out--and the local sod producers readily concurred--that lawns make environmental sense only if you break the old habits of over-watering. If you do so, the other environmental considerations kick in. Grass surrounding a house--or in a park or around a school--is a natural air-conditioner. It lowers the temperature, filters the air and produces oxygen. Cities need that. And it’s cheaper than air conditioners, which use electricity and cause their own pollution.

So, next time you drive along Pacific Coast Highway on a hot day and see them sprinkling the sod fields, wave hello instead of muttering about water wasters. They’re doing OK by the environment, and, by watching our own habits, we can too.