For landscapers, the drought boom may be over

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These have been boom times for companies that rip out lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping, but now their business might be drying up.

The Metropolitan Water District said Thursday it would no longer offer rebates to entice homeowners to get rid of their lawns because the agency ran out of money much sooner than it expected.

That is bad news for Alex Salazar, a landscape contractor in Los Angeles. Grass removal has become about 40 percent of his business, driven by the rebates.

“I know we’re going to have a lot less activity than we did before, because not everyone can afford to pay out of pocket,” Salazar said.

Even though the rebates ended last week, they still had the intended effect of spurring people to think more about drought-tolerant landscaping, he said.

"Actually my phone is still ringing, even with the news the funds have run dry," said Salazar.

But he doesn't expect grass removal to be nearly as popular without the rebates, so Salazar will now go back to what he was doing before the rebate-craze, which is everyday landscaping that is not drought-related. 

One local company called Turf Terminators built its entire business around the rebates, scaling up from three to 500 employees in the past year. In a statement released late Friday, the company said it was downsizing its operations, furloughing 40 percent of its work force, and laying off another 30 percent. It added that the company will still offer its services to customers who wish to pay for turf removal.

The statement goes on to read: "A sizable percentage of the company remains fully employed, and the company is still fully operational and servicing its existing customers. We are hopeful that the Metropolitan Water District will reinstate their rebate program so that we can bring back our work force and continue to service those that wish to utilize rebates to remove their turf."

“When that rebate goes away, your business model is going to be on shaky ground,” said Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association.

The Association doesn't count Turf Terminators among its members; A rift developed between the company and more traditional landscapers who believed that the company's work was shoddy. "Turf Terminators has gotten rich turning yards into gravel, but is it creating blight?" asked a recent LA Weekly story.

If the end of the rebate program is the end of Turf Terminators, Giarde doesn't seem to mind. "Our business model was never predicated upon receiving government funding," she said. 

Still, her organization is hoping for a statewide rebate for homeowners who remove their grass lawns. 

"For some property owners, being able to get that rebate might be the tipping point," Giarde said.

This story has been updated

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