The cost of a perfect lawn

Tribal Spokesman Stan Jones recently published one more call for better stewardship of our streams and rivers. Jones’ plea addressed a real need but was anyone listening? We might pay more attention if evidence for stream degradation was measured against the best base-line but that won’t be found by looking back to 1990 or 1960. The only baseline that really counts is the condition of pristine waters before the forests were cleared away and homes and businesses of immigrants lined up along waterfronts.

I think one person was listening because just after Jones’ article came out, a friend went into a rant about golf courses in general as though they were poster-children for lawn chemical abuse. His complaints were empty of particulars so I asked what the heck he was talking about.

“Water,” he said. I was a bit surprised to hear him trash-talking the sites of his favorite sport when we were 20 minutes from our tee-time at Cedarcrest. His point turned out to be the measures golf courses take to stay emerald-green during even the severest droughts. No weeds allowed and as often as not, he said, fairways are decorated with sprinkles of fertilizer granules — actually applied only twice per year. Of course the United States Golfing Association claims that runoff and seepage from golf courses isn’t much of a problem and that they address the concern in a responsible manner.

At the core of the issue is nature’s impossible task of processing and neutralizing man’s additions to natural soil chemistry. We strip away natural growth that can best absorb and handle chemical assaults and replace it with non-native turf that encourages runoff. The stuff we apply to turf may be described as man-made, manufactured or synthetic. When over-applied it might be better described as un-natural, abnormal or contrived.

Though it is always easy to criticize the big players in any game, including golf courses, this is not a cheap shot at the golf industry. It is even easier to forget that we small players can act like an undisciplined rabble that flaunts rules and cuts corners to achieve whatever we’re after. Including the greenest lawns in the neighborhood. Evidence of this shows up in the form of crusty drainage paths on sidewalks and fouled neighborhood storm-water ponds. No big deal, we say. What harm is caused by one lawn? Make that one lawn for each of 10,000 homes.

When it comes to keeping grass green, homeowners are more fanatic than golf course managers. Homeowners are driven by pride while course managers have to generate a profit. In itself, that’s reason enough to keep the concentration of chemicals lighter on fairways than front yards. On the other hand, we golfers favor courses with lush fairways and perfect greens and there’s only one way to keep them that way: chemical abuse. What makes this a special local problem is that Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties offer more golf courses per 100,000 of population than anywhere else in the U.S. The question becomes, does plentiful golf mean we have to accept bad water?

Understanding that Lake Whatcom is a source of Bellingham’s drinking water, most homeowners ringing the lake observe limits when fertilizing or spraying. Limiting phosphorus runoff had kept algae at bay so there was little concern until recent algal blooms began degrading the lake’s water quality. Accusing eyes focused on Sudden Valley Golf and Country Club while fingers pointed toward its 140 new acres of fertilized lakeside turf. Charges of “It’s your fault” and “No, it isn’t,” bounce back and forth in a standoff known locally as the Golf-War Syndrome.

Do golf courses apply more chemistry than is good for the environment? Of course they do, because weedy brown courses don’t attract golfers. Yet as businesses, golf courses must control costs, one of the big ones being the tonnage of chemicals applied to the average course each year. Critics need to realize that no course manager in his right mind is going to squander more expensive chemicals than the minimum necessary to do the job.

On the home front, one quarter of the pollution ending up in waterways has been traced to residential pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. That’s a quarter of the whole, including industry, transportation and agriculture — and golf. Another home lawn-and-garden issue is that residential spray services, unlike golf courses, blend pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer into a single spray application — whether needed or not. Toxic chemicals get into tiny life forms that are eaten by the worms and bugs that are food for birds, concentrating the bad stuff at each step until it reaches lethal levels.

The label on one 13-3-7 fertilizer plus herbicide explains risk: “Causes eye irritation. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, or clothing. Harmful if swallowed. Avoid inhalation. Do not contaminate feed or foodstuffs. Do not graze treated areas. Do not feed clippings to livestock … This product is toxic to fish. Do not apply directly to water. Runoff from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas. Only protected handlers may be in the area during application.”

We’re all at fault. We all share the burden of the damage done and it will take everyone to set things right. Indiscriminate application of un-natural turf and soil chemicals needs to be curbed.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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