Drought puts lawn mowers out of work

Published 9:59 pm Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jesus Ledesma, an employee with Morem Tree Services and Lawn Care, mows an area behind Target Friday morning. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Aug. 5 print edition of the Herald. For the complete series, click here.

Mike Heinicki hasn’t mowed a lawn in five weeks.

As owner of Blue Tree Management in Austin, Heinicki said he normally cares for about 40 residential lawns every seven days. But with a hair more than 10 inches of precipitation this year and just 1.86 inches of rain since the first day of summer, according to the National Weather Service, it couldn’t get much worse for local lawn care businesses like his.

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“It’s pretty much all dried up,” said Heinicki, adding that even if they got rain now, it wouldn’t do much good with a little more than a month left in the mowing season.

Heinicki had one other worker, but had to lay him off. Right now, his business is getting by on tree-trimming services, although that’s only a small part of what he normally does, he said.

Morem Lawn Care, which services several large commercial properties in town, including Target and Hormel Foods Corp., isn’t doing much better. Even though many of its clients irrigate their grass, it’s still hard to keep enough water on the lawn.

“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” said Morem owner Dan Morem. “It’s the worst we’ve had in years.”

In fact, the 1.36 inches in July is the worst since 1996, when just 0.73 inches of rain fell, and the 4.2-inch total in June and July is the least in Austin since 1976, when the NWS recorded only 3.34 inches.

But a lack of precipitation isn’t bad for everyone. Take S&S Waterworks in Austin, which installs and repairs lawn irrigation systems. While S&S has been held in check because of a sluggish economy, according to its owner, Tom Suter, he has been busier this summer.

“It’s been fairly busy,” he said. “We’re having some problems because we’re not getting any help from above. The only water [the grass gets] is the water we’re putting there.”

Another local weather-dependent business, Greenman HVAC, also sees more business when it’s really warm, according to its co-owner, Steve Greenman. But even with the heat — Austin’s average high for July was 88.8 and the overall average was 76.9, the hottest on record for both dating back to 1937, according to the NWS — Greenman had a lot more calls for air conditioning installations and repair last year. He estimated on really warm days last summer, they would get over 50 calls per day, and now, they’d get maybe 20. He attributes that to the economy, and that many people may already have new equipment thanks to recent federal tax credits.

“A lot of people look at repairing, or going with a less expensive model trying to save dollars,” he said.

This summer has also been good for the Austin Municipal Pool, according to Kim Underwood, Austin Park and Recreation Department director. Underwood said they’ve had 274 patrons on average this summer, compared to 235 through the same period in 2011.

“All in all it’s been a good season,” she said.

Still, Underwood said the pool doesn’t get the numbers when it’s really hot; the most popular weather is sunny with average temperatures. On June 27, for example, when the temperature hit 95 degrees, Underwood said only 201 showed up.

“When it’s really hot, people don’t turn out,” she said.

Precipitation in Austin by the numbers


1.86 in. — Total precipitation since the first day of summer


1.36 in. — July 2012

4.12 in. —1937-2012 July average


2.84 in.— June 2012: 2.84 inches

4.48 in. —1937-2012 June average


3.92 in. —May 2012

4.13 in. —1937-2012 May average

— Source: National Weather Service, La Crosse, Wis.