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Filler: We'll rue the day we watered and fertilized lawns

A sprinkler sits idle at a farm on

A sprinkler sits idle at a farm on Feb. 25, 2014 in Firebaugh, California. Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

I've always hoped that my grandchildren, assuming my daughter gets past her various battle scars, resentments and planned lawsuits and allows me to associate with them, will have a lot of questions about the glories and depravities of the world as I experienced it in my prime.

They'll thrill to hear of a land where children went outside without adult supervision and met up to wander the streets, play games and incur minor injuries without a bottle of water, sunscreen or even a GPS implant to keep them safe.

But when I tell them that one of the things we liked to do to cool off and grab a thrill was run through the sprinkler as it watered the lawn, I'm betting I'll see mostly confused looks.

In 50 years, there won't be any sprinklers, and there isn't going to be lawn watering. And when my grandchildren find out that we used to have these grassy carpets, and water them, and pour fertilizers on them before we watered them, so that we could leach that poison into the ground, they're going to be mad.

Many parts of the nation face a shortage of freshwater that threatens health and prosperity. Some hydrologists say the water supply on Long Island is already running low in places, while others say trouble is at least 100 years away. But all agree that contamination, which has been showing up in wells for years, is trouble.

Yet we both waste and contaminate water, not just to grow food, but to grow soft, beautiful grass. It's pretty. It gives the kids and the dogs and the golfers a place to play. But having lawns that must be watered and fertilized is nuts.

Here on Long Island the issue has come to a (rotating, water-spritzing) head on Shelter Island. Ten years ago, the town imposed a ban on new underground sprinkler systems, but grandfathered existing systems for another decade of use. Now the decade is up, but residents are still fighting to keep the water flowing and town officials want to accede to those wishes for the rest of the year while a committee studies the impact on groundwater supplies.

Shelter Island gets its water from its own aquifer. For years, homeowners near the shoreline have reported saltwater in their wells, generally a sign that there is less freshwater than they'd like underground. Thus the ban.

But other homeowners say green lawns are important to maintain property values, which is the modern equivalent of a religious argument. I'd point out that in the long run a sufficient aquifer may be more important to property values, but I'm a known heretic.

Shelter Island is its own story, but water on Long Island -- both the abundance of it and the purity of it -- is a huge concern. When you drink out of an aquifer that isn't recharging as fast as you're draining it, watering lawns doesn't make sense. When you drink out of that aquifer, and fish and swim in the bays and beaches, using poisonous fertilizers on lawns doesn't make sense.

Out West, the drought and anti-lawn impetus have gotten so serious that cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas pay people to replace grass with less water-dependent landscaping. Here it is not that bad yet, but we know aquifers can run dry and be tainted. Why would we risk either catastrophe, just to sustain pretty patches of Bermuda?

My grandkids will recoil in horror at the world that came before them, but in many cases I'll claim we didn't realize how terrible these things were: the pounds of sugar ingested, the episodes of "Three's Company" viewed, the Macarena.

But with watering and fertilizing lawns? I'll have to admit we knew, and blame religious fervor in our worship of that powerful god whom we knelt to and called real estate values.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.