As dry spell bites, Californians tear out lawns

Residents save on water bills by planting drought-resistant plants


Rick Blankenship was tired of an insatiable lawn he couldn’t keep green, no matter how much he watered it, so he decided to tear it out.

Three years later, he brims with pride at his new front yard in Long Beach, California, carpeted with natural sage- and emerald green-colored ground covers and shaded by flowering magnolia and peppermint willow trees.

“It just sounded like a great way to save money and at the same time, kind of beautify my landscape,” said the 51-year-old medical sales director.

As California faces a historic drought, more residents are following in Blankenship’s footsteps and tearing out thirsty lawns to cut down on water use. Water agencies across the state have been encouraging the change by offering thousands of dollars in rebates to help homeowners make the switch to a drought-friendly landscape with better odds of surviving dry spells common to the local climate.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which covers 19 million people, received requests to remove 2.5 million sq. feet (230,000 sq. meters) in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January, said Bill McDonnell, the consortium’s water efficiency manager.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, up from just five a week before Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency earlier this year. “We are just buried right now,” said Joe Berg, the agency’s water efficiency programs manager.

The trend isn’t just catching on in Southern California. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests for applications for turf removal rebates during the first six months of the year, a five-fold increase from the same period in 2013, said Marty Grimes, a district spokesman.

Water officials hope the shift is more than a fad and marks the beginning of a transformation in the way residents view neighborhood landscapes.

Most lawns in Southern California don’t bear greenery other than grass but water agency officials say the interest in turf removal programs — fueled in part by an increase in rebate rates — is encouraging.

“Twenty years from now, the ideal thing is, you take your dog for a walk in a neighborhood and the guy who has grass on his yard would be the abnormal yard,” McDonnell said, adding more than 21 million sq. feet (1.95 million sq. meters) of turf have been removed in Metropolitan’s six-county service area since the incentives began.

For many years, water agencies focused on improving the efficiency of indoor plumbing, where installing a low-flush toilet, for example, would have guaranteed results. Not so with gardening, which relies on residents to turn off the sprinklers or hose to save water, Berg said.

Now, agencies are turning their attention to outdoor uses, which make up the majority of water consumption in some residential areas, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Most are encouraging the use of drought-friendly plants, though some also allow synthetic turf.

Residents who remove their lawns not only weed out mowing and fertilizing costs but also save on water. In Long Beach, which began its turf replacement program four years ago, residents have cut their water bills by about 20 percent, said Matthew Lyons, director of planning and conservation for the city’s water department.

Ripping out a 1,000-sq.-foot (90-sq.-meter) front lawn in Long Beach saves about 21,000 gallons (8,000 liters) of water a year, and amounts to roughly $86 in annual savings on homeowners’ water and sewage bills, he said.

For years, conservation advocates have urged residents to plant drought-friendly landscapes but previously saw few takers. Many homeowners thought the gardens would be dry, dusty and filled with prickly cactus until they saw neighbors creating landscapes with lush evergreens and California lilacs, said Lili Singer, director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants.