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Ashland tests synthetic grass to save water

Even from a relatively close viewpoint, it looks like a uniform carpet of lawn — the only giveaway may be that it's just a little too perfect. It is, in fact, a plastic lawn, a synthetic grass that promises to save water and shrink the city of Ashland’s carbon output from mowing and trimming if it's installed on the medians of Siskiyou Boulevard.

Should the city do it? They want your vote on whether to make the jump to "syn-grass," as it’s called. They’ve set up one small median on the boulevard in front of Omar’s Restaurant, at the Boulevard's intersection with Ashland Street, for residents to check out.

Ashlanders are notorious for their love of natural, organic products of all types, but before you demand real grass, the city's water conservation specialist wants you to know that on just that tiny strip of 825 square feet of median, the city will save $75 to $125 per summer by not watering and perhaps as much as 20,000 gallons of water.

“At the city, we talk in cubic feet of water,” said Julie Smitherman, “and that’s 2,000 to 2,600 cubic feet of water during summer, on that one spot, plus you reduce maintenance with less emissions from mowers.”

One cubic foot of water equals about 7.5 gallons.

The water source for median irrigation is not Talent Irrigation District (TID). It comes directly from the Reeder Reservoir, the main source of the city's drinking water and much in demand as a drought slogs through its second year. The city has said lack of snow pack has Ashland facing drought conditions again this year and is asking Ashland residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce water use.

“Even small changes can make a huge impact," Smitherman said. "We all need to be conscious of our water use and reduce wherever we can.”

The faux-grass on the median by Omar's is only partly conventional plastic. It is 70 percent made from natural oils of soybeans, so it reduces dependency on foreign oil, Smitherman notes. Soybeans, like trees, absorb greenhouse gases, another plus, she says.

The mats are permeable and drain up to 10 inches of water an hour and they don’t contain the controversial crumb rubber infill, made from ground up tires. Instead, the backing is natural silica sand, which reduces bacteria and odor. And what synthetic content there is comes from recycled water bottles.

The artificial turf pays itself off in as little as three years, she notes, with reduced water and maintenance costs. The turf has a 15-year warranty and, without much traffic, will last up to 25 years. The turf costs $5 to $10 per square foot to install.

The artificial turf is one of three pilot projects the city is doing to cut its water use. Another project is installing drought-tolerant plants, as seen in the small triangular park around the “We Are Here” totem pole, where Lithia Way loops back onto North Main Street.

At Mountain Meadows retirement community, the city is partnering with rebates in the planting of 730 square feet of drought-tolerant lawn, which uses 30 percent less water than normal grass, she says. The seed is being bred at Turf Grass Water Conservation Alliance in Albany. The company's grass is third-party tested and peer-reviewed at universities.

What the city learns from these tests can be applied to all the city’s plantings.

To voice your opinion on the synthetic-grass medians, send an email to publicworksinfo@ashland.or.us.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

City of Ashland Water Conservation Specialist Julie Smitherman says synthetic grass in median strips will save the city money and reduce its water consumption. Photo by John Darling