Water, our most essential resource

Photo by Stephan Van Dam

Without clean water there is no life, no economy, no future.  Water, like the air we breathe, is essential to our existence.  Yet, increasingly we are experiencing droughts, water shortages and compromised drinking water.  Our turf lawns are a big part of the problem of excessive water usage and poisoned run-off that enters our watershed and bays.

Two crucial insights in the — NY Times 11/4/23 and Grist — into how as a country we are abusing and wasting this precious resource and how ground water rise will mobilize contaminants that have been lurking in the soil for years.

Source: Grist
Source: Grist

The Suffolk County Water Authority issued at least four Emergency Warnings about our water supply during the summer of 2022.  Their recommendation: stop irrigating lawns from midnight to 7 a.m.  They recommend first and foremost residents need to change their patterns of irrigating lawns and yards.  By the fifth warning they hinted that all lawn irrigation may soon have to end.

A NBC news story claimed that 70 percent of our water usage on Eastern Long Island comes from yard and lawn irrigation.  The fire departments on the East End of Long Island warned that water pressure was at dangerous levels limiting their ability to respond to potential emergencies.


Algae blooms on Long Island

Like the air surrounding us we are seldom conscious of water coursing underneath the place we are standing, walking, or driving on.  On Eastern Long Island our drinking water comes from aquifers less than eleven feet below the pavement, below our toxic lawns, our cement factory, our town recycling center and our super-fund site at the East Hampton airport.

There are somewhere around 40 million acres of lawn in the lower 48, according to an estimate derived from 2005 satellite imaging by NASA.

Environmentalists have been warning us for years about the wasteful nature of lawn irrigation.  That 2005 NASA study estimated that there are three times more acres of irrigated lawn in the U.S than irrigated corn.

The Natural Resources Defense Council determined in a 2021 study that in the US three trillion gallons of water (3,000,000,000,000 !!!) were used annually on lawns, America’s largest water crop. On a daily basis the country uses nine billion gallons, meaning we flush one Lake Mead down the drain every day. The EPA found that more than a third of all residential water use in the US currently goes toward landscaping. That’s madness & water we don’t have.


Photo by Stephan Van Dam

All that watering leads to excessive run-off containing the brew of chemicals folks use on their lawns that ends up in waterways, watershed and drinking water. Are rain gardens at the end of roads leading to the water an effective solution?

While the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) provides filtered and tested water to many households, there are still 35,000 wells serving 100,000 people in Suffolk Co not under the SCWA testing regime.  There are many chemicals used in lawn care which are not tested for. According to a recent DEC report over 1,700 chemical bio-cide products were used in the county in 2021, but SCWA only tests for about 400, meaning less than a quarter.

Laudibly, SCWA is currently lobbying East End town governments to punish and fine overusers while at the same allowing un-metered draw downs by tanker trucks in local neighborhoods for resale to private pool owners.

Now, more than ever, we need to rethink how to preserve our resources, rather than depleting them. Given our reality of severe droughts, disappearing lakes and stressed aquifers, we need to begin re-imagining and changing our landscaping practices.  We can begin at home, in our own yards to help preserve and reconstitute healthy bays.


When it comes to lawns, our landscaping model isn’t working.  We over water, fostering shallow rooted turf, bad at retaining water.  Consequently, when it does rain hard, the fertilizers, fungicides and whatever pesticides we apply to our lawns end up running down our streets into our waterways and into our ground water and aquifers.

Photo by Stephan Van Dam

We seldom give thought to the relationship between native trees, shrubs, plants, grasses and our watershed.


  1. Reduce your lawn size.
  2. Stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Check out Beyond Pesticides!
  3. Use native plants adapted to our extremely well-drained, nutrient-poor, sandy soils.
  4. Seed remaining lawn with clover, a nitrogen sink.
  5. Remaining lawn: Water only once or twice a week for more resilience; cut to 3 or 4 inch length every week; leave clippings on lawn for fertilizer. (Edwina von Gal (Perfect Earth Project PRJCT)

Native plants clean toxins from soil.  Native plants have extensive root systems that clean toxins from the soil and store nitrogen and carbon.  See graphic.

Graphic by Stephan Van Dam

“Native plants are naturally adapted to the type of climate, soil, rainfall and availability of pollinators, like bees and butterflies and require low maintenance and do not require fertilizers.” —  Peconic Estuary Partnership

The Peconic Estuary Partnership will even Pay you to Go Native!
If you live within the Peconic Watershed, homeowners can earn up to $500 to offset the expense of installing green infrastructure on their properties.”

How to Start Replacing Your Lawn With Native plants:
A simple first step to replace your lawn with natives is to smother the lawn with cardboard and wood chips or mulch mixed with compost in the fall.  By spring you can plant directly on top.

Suffolk County uses more pesticides (6,523,568 lbs in 2021) and chemicals for agriculture and turf lawns than any other county in New York State.  See the Dept. of Environmental Conservation statistics here.  And Long Island has the highest level of nitrogen from fertilizers in its drinking water in New York State.

For information on the health risks of pesticides in your soil and drinking water:

Biological Diversity Health

Beyond Pesticides

Re 2,4-D, the most dangerous pesticide you’ve never heard of

Permethrin what’s used against ticks

Neonics (systemic pesticides used to coat seeds)
in your drinking water

Pesticides in ground water in Long Island

Groundwater detection of pesticides across the US

NYT: Uncharted Waters. Inside Poland Spring’s Hidden Attack on Water Rules It Didn’t Like

Long Island specifics:
The most common chemicals in LI ground water:

Long Island has the most contaminated drinking water in NYS

What you may not know about Long Island’s drinking water

USGS: Ground water sustainability on Long Island

CBS News: How safe is the drinking water on Long Island

For More on What You can Do Right Now Go Here!