2022’s Cities Where Lawns Go to Die

A woman uses a hose to spray a large brown patch on her lawn, which is surrounded by yellowing grass.

Temperatures across the country have been hot, hot, hot. That’s nice if you enjoy warm weather, but it hasn’t been so good for our lawns.

Amid a brutal summer, where in the U.S. are lawns likely turning brown and dying?

To find out, Lawn Love ranked nearly 200 of the biggest U.S. cities to determine 2022’s Cities Where Lawns Go to Die. 

We looked for cities with high risk of drought, wildfire, and heatwaves, in addition to forced water cuts and extreme weather. We also weighed the water requirement for each city’s most common grass types against the average yard size.

See where the grass is literally greener in our city rankings and analysis below.

In this article

City rankings 

See how each city fared in our ranking:

Infographic showing the Cities Where Lawns Go to Die, a ranking based on drought, heatwaves, water cuts, low precipitation, and more
Note: For presentation purposes, not all ties for some metrics may be displayed in the above infographic.

Results in depth

Heat until golden brown

Lawns are longing for a cooldown in California, where many cities are dealing with drought, heatwaves, and wildfires. In response, the Golden State has implemented some emergency water restrictions on top of federally imposed cutbacks in the Southwest. 

High scores (meaning worse conditions) across the Water Restrictions and Climate Disaster Risk categories placed 36 (of 42 total) Cali cities among our worst 50. Extreme Weather is a factor in many Golden State cities, too. Low precipitation is exacerbating the continuous drought, especially in Southern California. 

At No. 1 overall, Bakersfield lawns are most at risk of getting baked, followed by Fresno (No. 2), Palmdale (No. 3), and Santa Clarita (No. 4). These dry valley regions deal with some of the lowest historical precipitation rates in the nation and are most affected by drought conditions.

Pro tip:

Wishing for water

You can hear the grass crunch underneath you in Southwestern cities — that is, if there’s any grass left in your neighborhood.

Outside of California, it’s no surprise that cities in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado took up some of the worst spots of our ranking. The Southwest has been struggling with a megadrought for the past two decades, and experts claim it’s drier now than it’s been in 1,200 years. 

Scottsdale, Arizona (No. 6), Reno, Nevada (No. 8), and Peoria, Arizona (No. 9) were among the 10 most scorched. With extremely hot, sunny days and little rain, Arizona is facing the most Extreme Weather (No. 1 in this category), but each of these three cities is dealing with heatwaves and water use limitations. 

Pro tips:

  • Replace your turf with an eco-friendly alternative — alternatives to traditional lawns are growing in popularity as homeowners in the Southwest are giving up on green grass. Some areas are even banning decorative grass altogether.
  • If you live in Phoenix or Scottsdale, consider replacing your grass with the best native plants for your region.

The grass is greener on the other side (of the country)

Don’t be green with envy looking at yards across Ohio and Virginia. 

Grass likely won’t dry out in Ohio cities like Cleveland (No. 193 or No. 1 worst), Akron (No. 192), Toledo (No. 191), and Dayton (No. 190) or any of the Commonwealth’s cities following closely behind. 

Ohio’s cool, rainy climate keeps lawns nice and verdant throughout the summer. Meanwhile, humid summer storms in Virginia keep the grass hydrated, and there’s a low risk of drought in these two states in the first place.

Pro tip:

  • It’s still beneficial to preserve water in these states, so if you water your lawn, do so mindfully

Sweaty and singed in the Southeast

Swampy Southeastern cities aren’t known for frequently battling wildfires, but some cities pose a higher risk of blistering after a hot summer. 

In Florida, it’s been a record season for wildfires. With such dry conditions, a lightning strike or a casual bonfire could quickly go out of hand in cities like Fort Lauderdale (No. 81), Miramar (No. 89), and Hollywood (No. 90).

Outside of the Sunshine State, cities like Mobile, Alabama (No. 87), and Savannah, Georgia (No. 84), are at higher risk of wildfires, too. 

Pro tip:

Expert take

Lawn irrigation might not seem like a big deal, but it’s costing homeowners across the country a lot of green. More than a third of the average American household’s water bill goes toward lawn irrigation, and that can go up to 60% in warmer regions. 

In light of continuing droughts, it’s best to practice eco-friendly lawn maintenance. We turned to some experts to learn how to be more water-wise — read what they had to say below. 

  1. How can homeowners who are dealing with a water ban maintain a nice-looking lawn throughout extreme heat and drought conditions? 
  1. What is the best way for homeowners to prevent wasting water outside?
  1. What is your best tip for distinguishing lawn damage caused by pests or disease from drought damage?
Bryan G. Hopkins, Ph.D., CPSS
Professor, Coordinator, Soil Science Society of America—NAPT
Shaku Nair, Ph.D.
Entomologist & Associate in Extension-Community IPM
Fereshteh Shahoveisi, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Turfgrass Pathology
Bryan G. Hopkins, Ph.D., CPSS
Professor, Coordinator, Soil Science Society of America—NAPT
Brigham Young University

How can homeowners who are dealing with a water ban maintain a nice-looking lawn throughout extreme heat and drought conditions?

  1. Select aesthetic lawn species that are drought-resistant and low water users, such as hybrid Bermudagrass, where it is available.
  2. Select cultivars of that species that are especially drought-resistant and low water users.
  3. Allow the grass to become drought-stressed in the spring to the point where it appears stressed, and then irrigate (if water is available) so that the water reaches the depth of roots (dig down to see). Repeat this once.
  4. If limited water is available, irrigate deeply to the depth of rooting and infrequently according to evapotranspiration water losses (this can be weeks apart in spring or fall and 2-7 days apart in the summer.
  5. Properly install and maintain the sprinkler system to provide maximum water distribution uniformity (fix leaks, proper heads and nozzles, sprinkler head to sprinkler head coverage, upright sprinkler heads, trim plants, and remove objects that are in the way of the water stream, proper pressure).
  6. Replace antiquated irrigation controllers with a Smart Irrigation Controller, which is surprisingly affordable and often can be subsidized by cities, HOAs, etc.
  7. Fertilizer properly with an adequate, not excessive amount, of nitrogen season-long (especially during the fall), and apply the other nutrients based on a soil test.
  8. Mow at the proper height for the species of the lawn (mowing too short results in short roots).
  9. Water in the mornings if possible (wind increases later in the day, and watering at night prevents identifying problems, as well as increases the likelihood of disease).

What is the best way for homeowners to prevent wasting water outside?

Grass is good, but minimize it when possible. Plants are important for many, many reasons (aesthetics, property values, cooling of the environment, generating oxygen, mental and physical health, etc.), but having a diverse landscape is best for many reasons.

Grass tends to require more water than most other types of plants. Mulched beds with water-conserving plant species are beautiful and can be low maintenance if done properly. These can get by with little or no water.

Plant enough grass to have an aesthetic landscape that is also functional, but look for ways to reduce the percentage of grass in the landscape (and this is coming from the “grass guy at BYU.”

Yes, I love grass. I teach about grass. I would hate a world that didn’t have some grass to play and walk on, but most landscapes I consult on and observe can dramatically reduce the percentage of grass with no or minimal lost benefits.

I can typically reduce water consumption by 80-90% in the landscape and still have a gorgeous property with excellent property value.

What is your best tip for distinguishing lawn damage caused by pests or disease from drought damage?

Drought-stressed grass is easily identified as it has a dark green or gray hue to it and doesn’t bounce back upright when stepped on. If the grass is dead, it is often too late to be able to confidently determine the reason for the necrosis, although patterns in the grass can be helpful.

For example, dead grass that follows sprinkler patterns is often related to drought stress in irrigated lawns. Also, check areas where the soil would reasonably dry out sooner (such as tops of hills, south-facing slopes, or next to concrete and other hardscape surfaces).

Disease damage can often be identified by patterns as well, such as distinctive rings for some pathogen damage. Insect damage can be distinctive, such as those that eat the root or crowns can result in the sod being able to be lifted up like a carpet.

Checking the soil moisture is also helpful. This can be done qualitatively by simply feeling the soil from a shovel or soil probe, or more quantitatively by using a soil moisture meter (often, diseased grass looks like it is dry, but there is plenty of moisture in the soil).

Shaku Nair, Ph.D.
Entomologist & Associate in Extension-Community IPM
University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension Arizona Pest Management Center

How can homeowners who are dealing with a water ban maintain a nice-looking lawn throughout extreme heat and drought conditions?

Since water is the most limiting factor during a drought, use it judiciously (see below for tips to prevent water wastage). Set higher mowing heights (3-4 inches), which holds moisture better and results in deeper root system. Avoid excess N fertilizers, this can burn an already stressed lawn. Reschedule all fertilizer applications to when temperatures cool down (mid-late Sept).

What is the best way for homeowners to prevent wasting water outside?

Monitor your irrigation system every day, to make sure that sprinklers are working, and most important – targeting the lawn and not the roads, sidewalks and other areas. Check for leaks in irrigation tubes, and avoid water pooling in the lawn or outside. Water during early morning, this results in minimal loss to evaporation and maximum retention in the lawn.

What is your best tip for distinguishing lawn damage caused by pests or disease from drought damage?

Change in color. Drought-affected turf shows gradual change in color (from green to dark green, then brown), and large areas are uniformly affected. Pest and disease symptoms usually start in one or more spots and spread from there. Disease affected turf turns yellow, then brown. Damage by pests may be seen as bare patches with complete loss of green (e.g., armyworms), or pale yellow followed by brown when roots are damaged (white grubs).

Fereshteh Shahoveisi, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Turfgrass Pathology
University of Maryland, Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Architecture

How can homeowners who are dealing with a water ban maintain a nice-looking lawn throughout extreme heat and drought conditions?

Infrequent but deep watering is a good approach to using less water and also promotes root growth which makes the grass more tolerant to drought. Also, watering early in the morning is recommended to avoid water evaporation.

Keeping the mowing height higher helps the root system grow deeper and access water in the deeper layers of soil. Make sure the mower blades are sharp so the grass heals faster in drought conditions.

Excessive fertilizer would not help to make the grass look better. It might promote growth in the beginning, but the new grass is more susceptible to drought and dies faster. It is better to wait till early fall for fertilization.

Use drought-resistant cultivars when establishing a new lawn or if you want to renew some areas. You can consult with your home lawn care specialist or university experts to find out the best drought-resistant cultivar that is available in your region.

Also, be aware that cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and fescues become dormant during heat and drought stress. Dormant grass looks brownish in color, but the root system is alive, and the grass will resume growing when the stress situation is gone. Only a very severe drought kills the grass.

What is the best way for homeowners to prevent wasting water outside?

It is good to know the estimated water requirement for the type of turf you have and for your region. This helps to avoid excessive watering, which not only results in wasting water but promotes diseases.

Monitoring weather conditions helps to avoid unnecessary irrigation. For example, if there is a rain event, then the turf needs less water in the next irrigation, or if the weather forecasts show a drop in temperature for a few days, you might be able to postpone the irrigation or irrigate with less water.

As it was mentioned before, drought-resistant cultivars are a great option for saving water as their water requirements are lower.

What is your best tip for distinguishing lawn damage caused by pests or diseases from drought damage?

One way to distinguish drought from disease is to monitor weather conditions. Drought happens when temperatures are high and precipitation is low, while most diseases are favored by humidity and prolonged leaf wetness, either under cool or warm weather conditions, depending on the disease.

With foliar turfgrass diseases (those that affect the above-ground parts of the grass), you normally see yellow-brown, purplish, or tan color lesions or blighting, while with drought stress, there would not be any localized discoloration on the leaf blades.

Identification of the root diseases is harder as the general above-ground symptoms are similar to other abiotic stress factors. You might be able to see discoloration and darkening in root and/or crown areas if a root pathogen is present, a hand lens would be helpful to see the darkening.

In the bigger picture, turf diseases normally appear in patterns like patches, spots, or areas that have poor drainage. On the other hand, drought-stressed grass is more susceptible to traffic, and you would see discolored grass from wheel tracks or footprints. When drought symptoms progress, the whole leaf blade starts to turn yellow-brown in color.

Getting familiar with the common diseases in your region and the time of year they occur can help to identify diseases. Being familiar with the signs and symptoms of common turfgrass diseases is necessary to distinguish them from drought stress.

Some diseases have unique characteristics, or you might be able to see the pathogen structures growing on the grass and therefore identify the disease. University Extensions have educational classes that you could attend and learn about problematic diseases in your region.

Lastly, if you are not sure if it is a disease or abiotic stress, the best way is to send samples to plant diagnostic labs or consult with an expert.

Manuel Chavarria Ph.D.
Assistant Professor & Extension, Turfgrass Physiology
Manuel Chavarria Ph.D.
Assistant Professor & Extension, Turfgrass Physiology
Texas A&M University, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

How can homeowners who are dealing with a water ban maintain a nice-looking lawn throughout extreme heat and drought conditions?

That is a great question. Texas is well known for its heat and drought during the summer months, with high temperatures in the upper nineties and triple digits with no rain for 80 to 90 consecutive days.

Warm-season turfgrasses are the most dominant turfgrasses in the state of Texas, and these turfgrasses turn dormant during drought-stress conditions. It is a normal mechanism warm-season turfgrasses have developed to protect themselves and to thrive in seasons such as summer (drought and heat) and winter (cold temperatures).

That means the plant is still “alive” but slows metabolic activity for a period of time in order to conserve resources and energy until conditions become more favorable. Keeping a lawn green out here is not only difficult once watering is restricted beyond one day per week. However, our turfgrass breeders are developing improved cultivars that can tolerate much more extreme drought.

The best way to deal with this situation is to prepare or acclimate your lawn heading into summer drought by following research-based best cultural practices such as proper mowing height, fertilization, irrigation, and pest management during spring, late summer, and early fall when it is our rainy season, as well as the when temperatures are cool.

Following good cultural practices will help mitigate damage under heat, drought, and water restrictions during the Texan’s hot summer. Also, planting more drought-tolerant species and cultivars with excellent drought-resistance attributes will aid in allowing grasses to persist through these conditions.

What is the best way for homeowners to prevent wasting water outside?

There are a few steps that a homeowner needs to consider to prevent wasting water.

  1. Use warm-season turfgrass species or cultivars that best tolerate drought
  2. It is recommended for homeowners to mow at the highest mowing height that is determined by their turfgrass species or cultivar and follow the 1/3 rule mowing frequency.
  3. Audit your irrigation system, checking uniformity and water volume.
  4. Maintain the irrigation system in good condition, fixing leaks, sprinkler head direction, and adjusting irrigation schedules according to the season.
  5. Do not irrigate during or following rain events or in the middle of the day. It is highly recommended to irrigate early morning, around 5 or 6 a.m. Cycle soaking also will help reduce runoff.
  6. Finally, do not irrigate beyond the turf requirement (60% of reference ET) to avoid wasting water.

What is your best tip for distinguishing lawn damage caused by pests or disease from drought damage?

Most turfgrass fungal diseases thrive with high relative humidity, prolonged leaf wetness, and excess soil moisture, so it is not common to see turfgrass diseases during the dry summer in Texas with high day and night temperatures, drought conditions (low relative humidity and dry soils), and implemented water restrictions.

It is almost impossible to have diseases under these unfavorable conditions during this summer in Texas. Chinch bug damage is common in St. Augustinegrass during late summer, often showing up after watering drought-stressed turf, with no green-up observed.

Submitting a soil or turf sample from areas of concern to a reputable disease diagnostic lab is the only way to confirm disease with high certainty.

Methodology

For each of the 200 biggest U.S. cities, we gathered publicly available data on the factors listed in the table below. 

We then grouped those factors into four categories: Lawn Watering Needs, Water Restrictions, Climate Disaster Risk, and Extreme Weather.

Next, we calculated weighted scores for each city in each category. 

Finally, we averaged the scores for each city across all categories. We eliminated seven cities lacking sufficient data, resulting in a total sample size of 193 cities.

The city that earned the highest average score was ranked “Worst,” or “Where Lawns Are Most Likely to Die” (No. 1), while the city with the lowest was ranked “Best,” or “Where Lawns Are Most Likely to Survive” (No. 193). (Note: The “Worst” among individual factors may not be 193 due to ties.)

Sources

National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Lawn Love, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Water Education Colorado

Final thoughts: Xeriscape to save

You don’t need to give up a stunning landscape in order to reduce your water consumption. 

Save money and help the planet when you decrease your dependence on water by xeriscaping your yard. Reduce (or totally eliminate) your turfgrass, and do one of the following instead:

Some regions are even financially rewarding homeowners who switch to water-conservative landscaping. For instance, the Coachella Valley Water District in California is offering a rebate program to pay homeowners $3 for every square foot of grass they remove. That goes up to $6 per square foot if you live in the city of Rancho Mirage.

Want to be wise about your water use but don’t want to say goodbye to your precious grass? Opt for a drought-tolerant grass type, such as tall fescue, Buffalograss, and Bermudagrass.

To further help your lawn weather the heat, hire a local Lawn Love pro who can help you grow the eco-friendly landscape of your dreams.

Main photo credit: Shutterstock

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.