But what about the drought?? What about water expenses??

The Heat Island Effect. Source: Dustin Phillips on Flickr.

Indeed one motive often cited for artificial turf usage is water conservation.  The LGUSD slides from the 11/8/21 Town Hall meeting highlighted water conservation as a prime justification for covering school grounds with giant sheets of plastic.

However, using water conservation to justify plastic grass is an argument sorely lacking in perspective. And it contributes to the false dichotomy that is this narrow set of district options being discussed.

To conserve water, should we entirely sacrifice:
  • two of the few remaining swaths of easily-accessible, publicly available living landscapes in our increasingly urbanized downtown?  
  • the exposure to nature they provide 1000+ Los Gatos children twice every schoolday?
  • the cooling they provide to counter the heat-island effect of our urban environment? 
  • the biodiversity they nurture?
Of course not.

While judicious use of water is very important, water usage needs to be evaluated in a much broader context, one that factors in Los Gatos kids and proper stewardship of our environment.  

LGUSD needs to be looking at other solutions beyond plastic grass or the natural grass management strategies that it (and many other districts and municipalities) may have traditionally employed. Sports Field Manager Jerad Minnick likes to quote Einstein: “if we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always gotten”.

What does Los Gatos forfeit when it eliminates living landscapes?

If LGUSD eliminates living landscapes like the natural grass fields at elementary schools, LGUSD will be committing two particularly regrettable disservices to Los Gatos:

  1. LGUSD will be forfeiting a source of daily nature access for Los Gatos elementary school students. This is an equity issue. Not every child's family is afforded their own private land from which to benefit from daily exposure to nature. In fact, this could very well be part of the rationale San Jose Water used to develop its policy that even during the very highest stage of water conservation, irrigation of school play fields (like LGUSD's elementary school play fields) will NOT be considered a wasteful or unreasonable use of water and would continue to be permitted.
  2. LGUSD will be forfeiting some of Los Gatos's resilience to climate-change-induced weather extremes.

How much water will LGUSD truly save with plastic grass??

As alluded to in this post, artificial turf requires water for cooling, cleaning, maintenance, safety, and for the district to maintain warranty compliance. 

What kind of cooling?  On a hot day, artificial turf can require repetitive watering to keep surface temperatures down at safe levels.  The cooling effect of watering artificial turf is short-lived with temperatures rebounding within 15-20 minutes.

What kind of cleaning?  Lacking the microbes found in the soil under natural grass to break down organic messes, artificial turf requires continual cleaning of dried-on sweat, spit, blood, vomit, dog excrement/urine, bird poop, food, gum.

What kind of maintenance? Plant-based infills require moisture to keep them from dehydrating and becoming hard and compacted.

Does warranty compliance really matter? Absolutely. Look at the cost of artificial turf and the volume of litigation against artificial turf manufacturers. LGUSD ought not risk voiding the warranty.

At this point in time, we have no verifiable proof that if LGUSD sufficiently waters the artificial turf for all the above purposes that artificial turf will give LGUSD a significant reduction in water usage.  

Considering that the climate change we are experiencing will continue increasing the number of days that watering of artificial turf will be necessitated just to keep it cool, we can't assume past water usage data is indicative of future watering needs or was collected in areas experiencing similar weather and climate to Los Gatos.

In contrast, with a natural grass field, especially one with healthy soil, water is captured and stored in the soil.

Regardless of whether real or fake grass is chosen, the fields will be leveled and modern irrigation will be installed, so some amount of water savings will be achieved with that alone.  

Let's look at what more can be achieved...

LGUSD, broaden this over-simplistic solution set for judicious water usage.

As one LGUSD parent highlighted recently, installing artificial turf "will teach our children that trading one environmental problem for another is the best we can do; as adults, we cannot be creative and thrifty and smart enough to tackle these problems in savvy and conscientious ways, we only repeat the same mistakes as the adults before us".

As another LGUSD parent fears, if LGUSD proceeds with installing artificial turf, it may be teaching our kids: “Gosh, nature is difficult and dirty, we should just carpet over it.
Why is it that only a single landscape architect was solicited for a proposal on how to spend the millions of dollars involved in this project?

Is artificial turf truly the only reasonable alternative to water-hogging, inefficiently-irrigated, spartanly managed natural grass fields? No.

Are large, costly crews of groundskeepers dedicated full-time to management of natural grass, like the crews employed by universities and professional sports organizations, the only solution to maintaining natural grass fields at a level adequate level for LGUSD and our local kids' athletic leagues? No.

As for courtyards and corridors, what creative, attractive, inviting, low maintenance designs without plastic grass can this and other professional designers offer us?

LGUSD is spending ~$700K for Verde Design to design and manage the construction of this project. That is on top of the millions that will be spent on the materials and construction itself. Surely LGUSD could spend a fraction of that amount to consult with a licensed agronomist.

Why is LGUSD only getting advice from a source that does not regularly perform actual field maintenance? How about seeking out the advice of members of the Sports Turf Managers Association that have had success with natural grass sports fields in school districts and municipalities with similar climates and similar budgets?  

How about seeking the advice of an experienced consultant like Chip Osborne who (as explained in the video below) taught Irvine Unified School District how to organically manage their athletic fields with less water and without increased costs so that the fields are playable 7 days a week by school kids and soccer teams?  

Osborne emphasizes that to successfully manage natural grass athletic fields, it's critical to focus on the soil chemistry and feeding soil microbes. Healthy soil stores water. Unhealthy compacted soil does not absorb much water. Instead water runs across the soil surface, eroding the soil.

Restore the health of soil around you and help slow Earth's changing climate!
Learn more at herofortheplanet.org.

The video below implies that with a natural turf management strategy focused on soil health, it would not be necessary to periodically resod. LGUSD anticipates real grass would require some level of sod replacement every 5 years and has included this expense in its cost estimates for natural grass. Perhaps with Osborne's management techniques, it'd be unnecessary for LGUSD to spend as much on natural grass as is currently being estimated.

Organic turf grass expert, Chip Osborne, and 
Rick Morse, Facilities Maintenance Manager for the Irvine, California Unified School District (IUSD) 

What kind of longevity and water savings might we achieve by maintaining a higher level of organic matter in the soil? The amount of organic matter in a soil directly influences the availability of water.  As Morse explains clearly in the above video "low organic matter means you have to water more".

In fact, this is so critical that water supply issues and undernourished soils are driving policy proposals to mandate minimum soil organic matter content and maintenance schedules that include aeration and topdressing with compost. Aeration of the soil breaks up compaction from use and provides the soil and grass better access to air, water, compost, fertilizer, and other inputs. So even if policy doesn't mandate it, aeration and topdressing with compost are cost-effective and water-efficient maintenance practices LGUSD ought to be exploring.

Are there additional things LGUSD and the Los Gatos community can do to conserve water?

  • Might there be underutilized grass areas on our campuses and throughout our community that could be modified to help achieve needed water reductions?
  • Might there be other water-saving measures, efficiencies, and strategies?
  • Can't we tolerate some less-than-perfectly green fields for part of the year?

Los Gatos "water conservationists", let's talk about true environmental stewardship.

From an environmental perspective, an artificial turf field behaves more like an asphalt parking lot than a field of natural grass.  Similarities include great contributions to the dangerous and expensive urban heat island effect, contaminated stormwater runoff, lack of carbon capture, and loss of critically-needed biodiversity both above and below the ground surface.  Keep in mind that installing an artificial turf field essentially begins with a thick bed of rock (yep, it even looks like a large parking lot).  Layering that base with foam padding and the green-tinted plastic blankets that cover it essentially kills the life beneath this lasagna of construction materials.  In fact, LGUSD's landscape designer has warned that it will very difficult and extremely costly to get natural grass to thrive on these acres in the future if LGUSD were to someday revert to a preference for natural grass.

University of California Cooperative Extension's Environmental Horticulturists Donald R. Hodel and Dennis R. Pittenger address the bigger picture in  "9%: Perspective on the California drought and landscape water use".  (Although this piece was originally published in 2015, Hodel confirmed for us in 2021 that the article and its data are still pertinent and up to date.)  In regards specifically to LGUSD's proposal, Hodel writes:

'I empathize and share your concern over the future of natural grass recreational surfaces and the entire urban forest and landscape in general in the face of the misguided onslaught to do away with them because of the drought.
Doing so is like “throwing the baby out with the bath water” because such natural greenery in our community is worth every cent and drop of water invested to keep them growing considering the countless amenities and benefits they provide in our ever increasing overheated environment. 
Two of the most important are cooling through transpiration and capture of carbon.'

Click on image above to view a short video from the Don't Turf Dehart campaign.

Amy Talbot, the Regional Water Efficiency Manger for the Regional Water Authority, which represents 21 water suppliers in the Sacramento region, based on research performed for her MA thesis cautions moderation in water reductions:  
"While widely accepted in a drought emergency, continuously reducing landscape water use beyond levels of efficiency can harm other landscape functions like providing habitat, healthy soil, quality of life benefits, tree health, and stormwater management."

Local organizations that prioritize environmental conservation (local chapters of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club) have written to the school board discouraging use of artificial turf.  

All agree environmental conservation is about MUCH more than water conservation.

As one example that our water district does not encourage reducing water to the point that nature is stomped out entirely, look to their messaging urging consumers not to dismiss the vital importance and critical value of watering trees in Santa Clara County and to the educational resources they point to on how to use water for this purpose judiciously and efficiently. "[Trees] create the air we breathe, help protect water quality, create shady gathering places for humans and wildlife, and can even add value to our homes by keeping them cooler in the summer and by adding year-round curb appeal." Some of these same points apply to natural grass.

And what about environmental justice?  

Are we justified in polluting the waters of another community’s “backyard” in order to reduce the water for our community's “backyard”? In 8-10 years, the eroded, degrading plastic carpets and contaminated infill won't be our problem anymore. Those mountains of waste, even if they take a temporary detour for repurposing, will eventually become some OTHER community's problem, probably a community nothing like Los Gatos. This is another example of externalizing the costs of our convenience.

How can an environmentalist / conservationist argue otherwise?? How can champions of equity argue otherwise?

What message would LGUSD be sending our kids and the wider community by role modeling this?

Aren't environmentalists / conservationists collectively working to reduce our dependence on the fossil fuel that is petroleum?

Is there perspective lacking when we pat ourselves on the back for turning down some plastic straws, bottles, and bags with our left hands while using our right hands to open the petroleum tap wide enough to deposit all this non-essential virgin plastic on our playground every 8-10 years, contributing to the towers of heavily degraded rolls of plastic in landfills or illegal dumping sites where it becomes someone else's problem?  

Artificial turf is classified as single-use plastic.

No, we can't stop using plastics in our society altogether, but refusing THIS use of plastic is a NO-BRAINER. We have more-than-reasonable alternatives.  

In conclusion, well-planned living landscapes provide a multitude of environmental benefits that MORE than justify judicious and efficient use of water.