The American attachment to a perfectly manicured plot of green grass is a dream that is slowly killing the drought-stricken state, so many municipalities have begun to subsidize the conversion of lawns to more drought-tolerant landscapes
Would you rather give up your lawn or your shower habit? Can you deal with spray-painting your parched garden green? Can you see the beauty in a front yard filled with cacti and rocks?
Low-flushing lavatories and recycled wastewater may not be subject matters you would usually associate with a generally more glamorous and decisively sexier California, but as the reality of drought hits urban areas, these are the questions millions of Californians are having to ask.
On 1 April, following the announcement of a fourth year of drought, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order demanding a 25% reduction of water usage in urban areas statewide beginning 1 June.
That meant that from Monday, around 90% of Californians were faced with reducing their water consumption by a quarter compared to 2013 levels. In high-consumption areas, water companies have been given targets as high as 36%. Customers have been told they must reconsider their entire way of life.
But how to achieve such a feat?
Rules have been devised by local water boards, ranging from carrots (discounts on high-efficiency lavatories and washing machines) to sticks (fines for watering your lawn more than twice a week, or for watering the pavement).
Residents have taken to drought-shaming one another, reporting water wasters to the authorities or on social media. In places like Sacramento, such finger-pointing has been encouraged – to great effect .
But above all else, there is pressure to take things one step further and turn to lawns. More precisely, to the ripping out of them.
In his executive order, Brown called for the replacement of 50m sq ft of lawns with “drought-tolerant landscapes”, a goal to be achieved with the help of local subsidies and partial funding from the state’s water department.
“Over 50% of household water usage is outdoors,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor and director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at University of California, Los Angeles.
California’s love for lawns is wholly unsuited to the state’s dry climate, Pincetl said, describing the attachment as an “inherited historic aesthetic” that comes straight out of the British Empire.
“Turf serves no functional purpose other than it looks good,” said Bob Muir of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC), which provides water to nearly 19 million Californians.
The MWDSC recently voted to increase its conservation programme to a whopping $450m over two years, with money taking the form of rebates on turf removal operations and incentives on efficient faucets.
Californians are taking the leap by the tens of thousands. Almost one year into that two-year period, Muir said, half of the money already spent (around $44m out of $88m) has been allocated to residents and businesses undertaking turf removal.
Turf Terminators, a Los Angeles-based company created last July, has ripped up 5,000 lawns in less than a year, according to its head of business development, Andrew Farrell. The company started with three employees. It now has 565 full-timers.
“People in Los Angeles were excited about a turn-key solution that helped them save water and money,” Farrell said.
But even with help from a turf-terminating team from design to completion, ripping up your lawn is expensive.
In Los Angeles, if you combine two separate subsidies from the city ($1.75 per sq ft), and the MWDSC ($2 per sq ft), you will most likely still have to put in some cash of your own.
According to Farrell, the average turf-removal job costs between $5 and $8 per sq ft. This means someone on a budget with a modest front yard of 400 sq ft would still have to pay $500 out of their own pocket for a $2,000 operation, if they went for one of the cheaper options.
If they wanted to go for something slightly more elaborate, the same resident would have to put in $1,700 of their own money for a $3,200 operation.
‘It’s the right thing to do’
For Brook Sarson, a rainwater and greywater consultant, educator and installer in San Diego, when it comes to making your home more water efficient, money should not be the sole focus.
“It’s the right thing to do. People should do it to have a good conscience, to be a good example to their neighbors,” she said.
Sarson first started looking into water efficiency in 2008, when California was experiencing its last drought. She said she was shocked to find very few resources available to cater to her water harvesting wishes and decided to become the person she was looking for by founding her own company, H2OME.
Sarson advises clients on everything from re-plumbing fixtures and replacing lawns to installing rain and greywater tanks – respectively harvesting water falling from the sky and water coming from washing machines and sinks.
A rainwater tank can cost as little as $1,000, up to $5,000 for a tank that will store large quantities of water and make a difference in terms of household water consumption.
Business has also picked up for Sarson. If people turned their noses up at the concept of greywater a few years ago, things have considerably changed. Sarson says clients are more educated than ever and demand is so high she has to limit the number of installations she does a week.
“People used to say to me, ‘I am not ready to give up my lawn right now,’” she said. Now, though, people point to those who still have lawns in disdain.
At UCLA, Pincetl said: “Part of the challenge today in California is how you begin to change people’s perception of what is a beautiful, well-maintained yard. There is a prevailing sense and desire to have a green lawn.”
Some residents in and around Los Angeles have complained that the end results of Turf Terminator operations are ugly. But Sarson said people could turn to books and information available online to learn how to do much of the water-saving operations themselves.
And if they did want to pay attention to beauty, she estimated that redesigning a green-grassed garden into a (nice-looking) drought-friendly landscape would cost an average of $2,500 to design and $30,000 to install.
‘There is a greater sense of urgency’
Still, whether for reasons economic, aesthetic or other, California looks to have some way to go to meet its 25% reduction target. The most recently available data showed that Californians reduced water consumption by 13.5% in April , compared with the same month two years ago.
The reduction was worryingly behind target for June, but it still represented a great leap from previous months. In February, according to the State Water Resources Board, Californians cut water use by 2.6% compared with the same month in 2013. In March the figure was 3.9%
“There is a greater sense of urgency,” said Heather Cooley, director of the water program at the Pacific Institute.
“Mandatory restrictions is a new approach,” she added, explaining that last year’s voluntary call for reductions had not been effective enough.
Cooley said the educational aspect of usage was crucial, with people needing to relearn their approach to water and see it as something precious and scarce.
“The challenges we are seeing now are challenges we are going to see in the future because of climate change and the growth in our population and economy. This is about the future we need,” she said.
In practical terms, what that looks like is simple, said Pincetl at UCLA: “Water is a zero sum game. Either you use it inside or you use it outside. You cannot do both.”
So once more: the lawn or the shower habit?
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