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A Sprinkle in Time

We've convenienced ourselves into apathy about water



As winter in Utah (or what passed for it this year) has drifted into spring, it's time once again to prepare for our local summer traditions: Outdoor concerts. Parades and festivals. Hiking and biking. People watering things as though we don't live in a desert.

The latter phenomenon was at the forefront of my mind during a recent rainy week in the Salt Lake Valley, when drips, drizzles and cloudbursts dropped more than an inch of rain in many locations. A reasonable person, looking from the outside, might think, "Why, there is a region that received a much lower than average snowpack this year. The temperature is currently hovering in the 60s and 70s. And they have just received a generous helping of precipitation. Surely, the people living there could turn off their lawn sprinklers for a week or so."

Of course, anyone who doesn't want to court madness has long ago given up expecting reason to guide human behavior. And so it was that, during this particular week, an LDS ward house in my Sandy neighborhood had its lawn sprinklers blasting—including generously irrigating the street—at 3:30 in the afternoon, despite both the recent weather and a Sandy City ordinance prohibiting sprinkler use between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. And so it also was that the UTA Trax station at 9000 South was watering its grass the morning after it poured down rain locally.

To the credit of UTA, someone responded quickly to my snarky Twitter comment about the weather-inappropriate running of the sprinklers: "Our sprinklers are set on timers, I will follow up with facilities to discuss this further." Sandy City, as of now, has not similarly chosen to tweet back at me, though I imagine they're very busy over there finding new places for speed traps.

But the real matter at hand is the manner in which lawns are watered all over Utah. We could address the craziness of thirsty Kentucky bluegrass being used at all in this region, but let's start with a simpler notion: Maybe lawns could be watered consciously.

That would seem like a simple idea, but that's not what a lot of us generally do. It's certainly not what the LDS ward house and the UTA Trax station were doing. And that's because we have timers—wonderful modern conveniences that allow us to set a specific daily (or nightly) time for sprinklers to run, flip a switch and not bother thinking about it again until the first fall flurries fly. Which is why we end up seeing lawns doused by sprinklers just hours after they were doused by Mother Nature.

Take the case of my next-door neighbors, for example. By nearly every conceivable metric, they are approximately the Platonic form of the Good Neighbor—an older couple who have checked our mail when our family has gone on vacation, brought us holiday gifts, and generally proven themselves to be lovely people. They also, come springtime, water their huge lawn automatically every single night, copiously, in rain or shine, sending the water over our fence in sufficient quantities for us to consider starting a mushroom farm. As considerate as they are in virtually every other evident way, it never seems to have occurred to them that they could water less often, or only when the weather requires it.

This shouldn't be surprising, of course. Americans never met a convenience they were unwilling to employ to its maximum capabilities, so we set timers to make sure our coffee starts every morning, and we never miss an episode of Game of Thrones, etc. We've got stuff to do, and the more of that stuff that we can get done without having to actually remember to do it, the better.

The problem comes when not having to remember to do something means not having to remember when it doesn't have to be done at all—and when it comes to water in the arid West, that's a luxury we can't afford. We treat our subsidized flat-rate-bill water supply as something we can use as often as we wish without consequence, either to our personal finances or to the larger community. It's just there, because it's always been there, and having to make a conscious decision every single time that, yes, tonight I'm going to water my lawn—well, that takes work, even if you've managed to start believing that it's a good idea.

A wet May along the Wasatch Front might have given local residents reason to believe that this drought isn't really anything to be concerned about. But even the minor extent to which our ample spring rains might make up for the skimpy winter snowpack vanishes when we don't allow that rain to do simple things like water our lawns so that we don't have to. Every summer, every one of us likely drives by commercial developments, homes and churches with sprinklers blasting either in the middle of the day or in the middle of wet weather—and in virtually every one of those cases, it's because someone turned on a timer, walked away, and stopped thinking about it.

We've convenienced ourselves into apathy about a resource we need for basic human survival. Maybe it's time to stop leaving its fate in the hands of a timer.