MWD budgets no money for popular cash-for-grass program

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The Metropolitan Water District has no plans at the moment to continue funding an extremely popular turf removal program that has been credited with helping Southern Californians replace more than 100 million square feet of lawn.

Last year, in response to the continued drought, the district added a major injection of funding for conservation programs from its reserve funds. The injections turned what is typically a $20 million conservation budget into a whopping $450 million.

On Tuesday, the MWD's Finance and Insurance Committee held a workshop aimed at developing a proposed budget for the next two fiscal years. District staff has suggested increasing funding for conservation programs by about $15 million over the next two years. None of the funding is currently proposed to go towards turf removal, and no additional dips into the reserve fund — called the  water rate stabilization fund — are being recommended. The final budget is expected to be decided by the board in April.

An official with the district said the decision to move away from turf removal reflects the need to pursue a wider range of strategies when it comes to promoting conservation.

“This is really a long-term transition that we’re making. We’re thinking about where people will be 20 and 30 years from now and what the landscape will look like in Southern California. And you don’t just get there based on paying people to remove turf. You get there in terms of changing people’s attitudes, developing greater awareness of the need for water efficiency,” said Deven Upadhyay, manager of water resource management for the Metropolitan Water District.

Upadhyay said it was infeasible to continue drawing on reserves to support the program and that the one-time infusion should be viewed as a success.

“To say that we’re reducing our efforts in terms of conservation is, I think, to belittle the fact that we really significantly stepped up during this drought to put a lot of money in that was really only funded because we had the reserves to do it. And now, to characterize that as a step down, I think, is a little bit odd, given that we were stepping up,” Upadhyay said.

Upadhyay said more focus will be put on providing rebates to customers who purchase water-conserving appliances.

Bob Muir, a spokesman for the district, said when the fiscal year ends on June 30, MWD is expected to have $450 million in its reserves. He said the amount falls within the $200-500 million range the district believes is necessary for continued fiscal responsibility, especially since sales from retail agencies are expected to come in lower as a result of increased conservation.

Others, however, are disappointed by the district’s current budget proposals. An environmental researcher with UCLA said it’s important to keep momentum going towards making drought-tolerant landscapes more accepted in Southern California.

“Landscape transformation is going to take time and dedication, and we can’t just do one-off programs and hope that that it’s going to actually change the culture of landscaping in Southern California, which has evolved over a hundred years,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Pincetl said she and colleagues will be researching the various impacts that the cash-for-grass program had on the region, in terms of landscape change and possible changes in the urban heat island effect.

Meanwhile, she said a lot still needs to be done to address overall water conservation shortcomings.

“We need a lot more incentives. We need leadership on the part of the mayor and others. We need thought leaders to continue to tell us this is a good idea," Pincetl said. “I think that what MWD has done is a really excellent first step, but it’s only a first step, if we really want to conserve water in the outdoor landscape. That’s the question: are we really dedicated to this shift that needs to take place?”

Efforts that benefited from the turf removal program have already been affected by the loss of the rebates, which dried up in early July due to high levels of participation.

Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, said fewer people have expressed interest in replacing their grass with native plants.

“We had lots and lots of people who found out about our organization through these turf removal programs, and there were a lot of people who came here for that explicit purpose. So it will reduce that segment of our customers and our visitors here and the people who take classes. We can already see that there are fewer people taking lawn removal classes,” Connolly said.

Connolly said she was disappointed that the district is considering suspending the rebate program but said if one were renewed, it would benefit from some changes.

“It was a great effort by MWD and quite difficult logistically to handle. But going forward, if they did, it would be nice to be more seasonally appropriate to when they required these transformations to happen,” Connolly said.

She said people who chose to replace their gardens with native or drought-tolerant plants in the early part of the summer were required to finish their projects during the hottest part of the year, necessitating extra watering at the least ideal time.

“The way the program was set up — which I think was ideally meant to make people more aware of their local conditions — in some regards, ignored local conditions,” Connolly said.

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