Drought: 12 things to know about lawn replacement programs

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Update: California water regulators voted Tuesday to approve fines up to $500 a day for residents who waste water on lawns, landscaping and car washing.

Previously: California’s top water officials meet Tuesday to consider bringing out the stick: mandatory limits on outdoor water use in cities. Even before Gov. Jerry Brown declared the current drought emergency in January, local water agencies have been trying the carrot approach, offering homeowners incentives to rip out their lawns.

Here are a dozen things to know about how these programs have been working locally.

  1. Business is booming. The Metropolitan Water District and cities and agencies surveyed by  KPCC say that current applications for lawn rebates far outpace all the payouts given since the programs started. For example, in Anaheim, they’ve paid out rebates for more than 80,000 square feet of turf removed since 2010. Just this year, they have applications for 110,000 more.
  2. Want to apply? It’s quite likely that you’ll go through the SoCal WaterSmart website. There you can estimate and apply for a rebate. The program requires that you apply for approval first, by reserving square footage up front and submitting several photos of what you’re proposing to remove. Once approved, you have 4 months to complete the project. 
  3. It’s clear that price signals are a factor in widespread adoption of turf rebates. Bill McDonnell, director of conservation programs for the Metropolitan Water District, thinks $2 a square foot is ample incentive. “It’s like, our rebate is going up and the cost of doing this is going down. And I think that we’re at a nice little sweet point now at $2.” Anne Phillips isn't so sure. She is a landscape designer who works with homeowners throughout the area. “I think with $3 a square foot, we are getting to the point where a landscaper can do it for the amount of the rebate,” she says. “But I will say a lot of people still don’t know about it. I would say that less than half of the people who call me that want landscaping know about the rebates and I have to bring it up to them.”
  4. It’s nearly impossible to know for sure how much water we use outdoors in Southern California. UCLA researchers estimate outdoor water use in Los Angeles at 54 percent of single family residential totals. “We believe that if there were indoor and outdoor water meters people would be able to understand the huge amount of water people actually use outdoors,” says Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Cities at UCLA. “I would absolutely like to know,” says Max Hester, a homeowner who has kept his grass even though he know it costs. “Because having that information would then give me the tools to say, OK, well is this still worth doing given the costs of this particular action?”
  5. Los Angeles is ambivalent about thirsty landscaping. In the San Fernando Valley, the communities of Granada Hills, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills and Tarzana are the top participants in turf removal incentives. Elsewhere in L.A., West Adams and Westchester have also demonstrated strong interest in the program. Many people are conflicted on their own properties. Mar Vista resident Roberta Kessler replaced grass in her back yard, but not her front. “I think I would keep the front because although the lawn is not in the shape I’d like it to be in, it’s still there and I like it,” she says.
  6. The city of Claremont has one of the highest rates of conversion. Four years ago, Claremont was paying $3 a square foot for turf replacement, according to the Three Valleys Municipal Water District. Since then the rebate dropped to $1 a square foot before going up to $2 in May. Three Valleys’ Cindy DeChaine says, “Program demand has remained relatively stable," despite the fluctuations. 
  7. Long Beach’s "Lawn to Garden" program only pays to convert parkways and front yards. Long Beach has paid to convert lawns at more than 1,300 homes, representing around 2 percent of the city’s single family housing stock. Through our Public Insight Network, we heard from plenty of people in Long Beach who raved about their city’s program. Long Beach officials point out areas of lower adoption are predominantly commercial. 
  8. All of Malibu has converted just over 700 square feet through this program.
  9. The city of Glendale hasn’t yet converted any turf through an incentive program because it's just starting one up. Under SoCal WaterSmart, synthetic turf is eligible for rebates. But Glendale has had a prohibition on synthetic turf. The City of Glendale’s Atineh Haroutunian says Glendale will have a turf removal incentive up and running within a couple of months.
  10. Less than one-tenth of one percent of potential convertible yard has switched from grass using rebates. Our estimate is based on several factors. One is number of singe family homes, obtained via the state Department of Finance. Another is an estimate by the Public Policy Institute of California for average lot size in square feet. Obviously, we don’t know how many Southern California lawns changed without rebates. Jeremy Levy, now a homeowner in Lake Balboa, grew up around Wilshire and Fairfax. “It was all just manicured lawns,” he says. “And about 10 years ago, 15 years ago it started changing so that there’s a lot of people who have done the lawn replacement out there. I think it’s a really nice change; it gives the neighborhood a lot more character.”
  11. Turf removal incentives for single-family homes aren’t the only rebates towards slaking landscaping’s thirst. As mentioned above, Metropolitan offers other rebates, including for irrigation controllers and for commercial properties. The city of Santa Monica offers what appears to be the most comprehensive range of rebates related to landscaping, including for turf removal, drip irrigation, and sprinklers. Santa Monica also pays for storm-water capture: up to $2,000 for a rain barrel or cistern, and up to $40 for a downspout redirect. 
  12. Metropolitan Water District’s board doubled its conservation budget from $20 million to $40 million in May. That’s against a total budget of $1.6 billion. At least it exists: Metropolitan’s conservation programs were, at one somewhat recent point, in doubt. Regional residential conservation programs were among those suspended when Metropolitan audited its conservation programs and found $14.2 million in backlogs. After an investigation, Metropolitan’s board voted to pay the backlog and continue the programs. 

MAP: How well is the "Cash for Grass" program working?

What does your yard look like? Have you ripped up your green grass or do you just love it? Here's what your fellow Angelenos had to say on Facebook and Twitter. Share your pics with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the #myyard. To become a KPCC source, share your insights here. 

See photos of SoCal yards.


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