It doesn't take a degree in weather science to figure out that this summer has been a tough one. All you have to do is step outside. The wall of heat that hits you every time you leave a building, the constant hum of air conditioners and the grass browning on every lawn announce the record heat and dryness loud and clear.
We can all see the problems, but the experts can put it into perspective. According to Chicago Meteorologist Tom Skilling, this summer's heat and lack of rain will go down in the record books. As of July 20, only 3.11 inches of rain fell since June 1st in the Chicago area, about half the normal rainfall. While rains in the past few weeks have moved the summer from third driest on record to 19th, the effect of high temperatures and dry days isn't easy to erase.
Lawns and plants
Tim Hesterman, owner of Hoy Landscaping, notes that this summer has wreaked havoc on Oak Park and River Forest lawns that his company services. "It's a just a mess right now," he says about the heat and the lack of rain.
Hesterman says that the type of plantings people use can definitely impact the ability of their lawns to withstand excessive heat and drought.
"We've been trying to push a different type of grass for several years now, a fescue instead of blue grass. It's more shade tolerant and does better in drought conditions. Native plants have also seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, and these kinds of plants do a much better job during a drought."
Every lawn has the ability to go dormant during a drought, but Hesterman cautions that the recent extreme conditions are not typical and may require more of a response.
"The danger this year is the length of time that we've had the high temperatures and dryness is not typical. This kind of extended drought can cause damage. Many of our clients just have us provide lawn maintenance during the summer but don't do a full fall service program. If lawns don't have enough time to recover before winter sets in, a fall service program, that includes aeration, fertilization and possibly re-seeding could help counter the summer we've had."
Mark Kelty of Kelty Lawn Care says homeowners should also look beyond the health of their grass.
"People think the lawn is the most important thing, and it's not. Flowering bushes and trees are suffering. People should be watering everything in their flower beds to keep them healthy."
Some of the older trees are clearly stressed and already seeding out," he adds. "Watch for curling leaves or fungus. These trees need water, too."
Home watering solutions
Many homeowners take a do-it-yourself approach and simply rotate a sprinkler around their lawn when there isn't enough rain. While this tried and true method can work and has the added bonus of providing aquatic fun for the kids, it can be hard to know when and how much to water. In-ground sprinkler systems can remove some of the guesswork.
Muellermist has been providing sprinkler systems to Oak Park and River Forest homes for generations, and business development manager Bill Davis notes that their sprinkler systems are designed to make it easy to maintain any lawn.
"Some of our systems are monitored by weather conditions such as temperature, rain and sun," he explains. "We set up and program a controller, and then the homeowner maintains it. In drought conditions like we have right now, they can increase the watering time. In times of lots of rain, they can decrease it or shut it off."
Davis says the cost of a sprinkler system depends on the lot size, but can range on the low end from about $5,500 up to $30,000 for a large lot. "People seem to be staying in homes longer and doing more of the smaller home projects like this," he says. "We've seen people investing more in their landscape, and there's been an uptick this summer due to the drought."
As is the case in many aspects of suburban life, village governments enforce regulations on lawn watering. The state of Illinois mandates watering restrictions for towns using Lake Michigan water supplies. From May 15 through September 15, outdoor watering is limited Monday through Friday to even numbered addresses on even days and to odd numbered addresses on odd days.
The restrictions apply to any hose connected to the village water supply used for sprinkling lawns or plants and washing vehicles. Newly planted sod, trees, and shrubs are exempt for the first 30 days of growth.
Oak Park's Water and Sewer Superintendent Brian Jack says that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources monitors water use in the village.
"Our water allocation permit is renewed every 30 years. We provide a yearly audit of our water usage, and usually our allocation per day goes up every year. We're only allowed a certain amount of water a day, so the regulations are in place to make sure we don't go over."
Jack notes that the village hasn't had to take steps to promote further restrictions in quite a while but can do so if necessary.
"Multiple conditions, including length of the drought, can influence whether we can keep up with demand. We have no plans of making restrictions stricter at this time, but we could if we felt we had too. Our total water consumption is up over the past couple of months, but we haven't seen anything too conspicuous."
According to Jack, the director of public works and the police chief have the authority to issue citations to people not in compliance with watering restrictions. He admits that doesn't happen too frequently, but warns, "Our workers do look for violations when they are out and about."