by Katie Ronan, McCormack Graduate School student
As the days get longer, daffodils begin to bloom, and heavy winter jackets are shed, the last thing on our minds may be the drought. However, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, this past summer and fall Massachusetts experienced severe and even extreme drought conditions which put a serious strain on public water supplies. Across the state, communities faced with dangerous water shortages were forced to implement outdoor water use bans and tap into emergency sources. Although rain, melting snow, and low winter water demand have helped to alleviate some urgency, this does not mean the drought is over. On February 1, the Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs declared that despite slight improvement, much of the state is still facing water deficits and all regions remain under drought advisory, watch, or warning.
This is because reservoirs and watersheds are like the battery in your smartphone – they drain much faster than they recharge. Although a few rain and snowstorms certainly help, they are really only equivalent to a few minutes on the charger. Just as this might give you enough battery life to text your friends before your phone dies, it will not suddenly reverse a drought. In reality, it can take years of rainy weather to completely refill reservoirs and replenish aquifers after a severe drought. Additionally, we never know how long dry spells will last or if the coming months will begin to improve, or worsen, our state’s drought conditions. With 70 degree days in February, climate change only seems to be increasing the variability and extremity of weather patterns.
This may sound scary, but it does not have to be. Despite the lack of control over how much water we get, we do have control over how much we use. A systems thinker might say that even with limited inflow, we can maintain the stock in our system by also limiting outflow. In other words, we can help maintain our water supplies when precipitation is limited simply by using less water! There are many easy and effective ways to conserve water in our everyday lives such as limiting outdoor water use, fixing leaky fixtures, taking shorter showers, and reusing clean household water. By opting not to deplete our common resource and to use water wisely, we can avoid the need for government implemented water bans and usage restrictions. Just because we are allowed to water our lawns does not mean we should.
In addition to adjusting our behavior, I propose adjusting our perspective. Although our green grassy lawns conjure feelings of idyllic New England, watering them accounts for a lot of wasted water. It is natural for grass to fade and go dormant during hot summer dry spells, but it recovers when the weather cools off. Let’s eliminate the shame of having a brown lawn and let the grass be greener on the other side. Better yet, let’s encourage our neighbors to limit outdoor watering and let their lawns go brown too!
Together we can shift our collective paradigm and make Massachusetts a leader in reducing the social pressure to keep our lawns perfectly green all year long. Maybe we can even expand our ideas of what a lawn should look like and begin to integrate xeriscaping or permaculture. By conserving water we can all help to bolster our state’s water supplies. By integrating conservation into the social fabric of our daily lives, we can ensure that Massachusetts has sufficient water to weather whatever the seasons bring. This summer, let’s all let our lawns go brown and save water for what really matters, like fire suppression, medical needs, and flushing the toilet!
Katie Ronan studies public administration at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.