Astroturf Environmentalists: Anatomy of a Bad Bill

Since state government severely restricts the ability for non-Big 5 legislators to be able to think for themselves and effect actual change, it seems that a major goal of Sacramento politicians is to get their name on as many pieces of legislation as possible. The Sacramento version of Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley would be an SB or an AB with a number and a name following. And it's the name that's the name of the game, a kind of lexicographical legislative legacy.

Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), who having taken office in 2010 has the most seniority in the lower house, has a fair number of bills with his name attached, including some good ones, such as AB 1116, which would stop your TV from spying on you.

But Gatto's AB 1164, while well-intentioned, is a flawed bill, which thanks to Sacramento's occasional inability to think logically and long-term could have the exact opposite impact of what Gatto presumably intended.

"Water-wise" is the buzzword of the day, and for good reason. We can and should be doing everything we can to save water. AB 1164, which would seem to further this goal, prohibits municipalities from banning artificial turf, and further restricts municipalities' abilities to regulate the use of artificial turf. Initially, the bill would simply have prohibited cities from prohibiting artificial turf, but a vague amendment was inserted which will allow regulation as long as it does not "substantially increase the cost of installing synthetic grass or artificial turf."

It is very true that landscaping accounts for the lion's share of urban water use and curbing the amount of water used for irrigation is a laudable goal. But there are a multitude of natural alternatives to fake grass and these natural alternatives are inherently better for the environment than the Monsanto-ization of our yards.

Indeed, the potential impacts of mass replacement of natural, oxygen-producing greenery with plastic turf have not been adequately studied in the rush to get AB 1164 to the governor's pen. First of all, the bill has no permeability requirement for the fake grass which is to replace natural ground covering. Cheaper synthetic turfs are not permeable, creating water-wasting runoff and adding to cities' snowballing stormwater costs, which will come to represent a serious challenge to many cities' fiscal viability.

Allowing the replacement of a natural ground-covering with cheap synthetic turf is effectively the same as allowing the replacement of a natural ground-covering with concrete. While Joni Mitchell may send her regards, at the very least, permeability should have been an absolute requirement. Cities, recognizing the need for rainwater to recharge aquifers, could now in theory legislate this requirement, but AB 1164 would allow such a requirement to be challenged, as higher-quality permeable synthetic turf is invariably more expensive.

Many of the legislators who will vote in favor of AB 1146 agree that global warming and climate change are at least partially responsible for California's severe drought. At the same time that Senator Fran Pavley's climate change legislation stalled in Sacramento, it is all the more distressing that no Sacramento legislators took the time to consider the potential environmental impacts of a mass replacement of natural ground coverings with astroturf.

It is no secret that yards and/or fields covered by synthetic turf are much warmer--by 40 degrees or more in some cases -- than similar areas covered by grass or water-wise grass alternatives. A 2010 study by the American Meteorological Society confirms that artificial turf can create "heat islands" which can significantly raise ambient temperatures and contribute to global warming. By embracing AB 1146, we are faced with a Jekyll and Hyde legislature (and governor when he ultimately signs the bill), who love to tout their own roles in combating climate change, yet who are actually contributing to global warming by pushing their astroturf agenda.

In April of this year, the city of Toronto published an extensive "Health Impact Assessment of the Use of Artificial Turf." The report confirmed the common sense climate change concerns created by synthetic turf.

Leaving aside the aesthetic issues, leaving aside the seemingly pathological bent of Sacramento legislators to disrespect local control, and leaving aside potential health issues addressed in the Toronto report (among other studies), a widespread replacement of natural greenery by synthetic turf could have the exact opposite effect of what is intended.

For example, the remedy of synthetic turf manufacturers to the heat island effect is nothing if not ironic in view of the bill's professed goal: "Simply watering the field for 10 minutes will drop its temperature approximately 40 degrees. The temperatures remain lowered for almost 2 hours."

While it is sad that groups which should be looking out for all of us like the Sierra Club haven't done anything to address this threat, it is sadder yet that Sacramento collectively has shunned both common sense and logic in embracing a short-sighted bill which has the potential to do a lot more damage in the long run.

This same group of people, many of whom voted to ban plastic bags and, more recently, microbeads and who oppose GMOs, are now passing a law which under the guise of water saving will create unnecessary landfill problems with the disposal of synthetic turf, as if potential water wastage, depleted aquifers and global warming weren't enough.

Mike Gatto, who is evidently priming a run for state Senate next year, might love to add another notch to his list of "Gatto bills," but for the rest of the state, AB 1164, however well-intentioned, is a disastrous Sacramento-made response to a natural California disaster.