Imagine the vast landscapes that Los Angeles’ water supply flows through. Water from the Colorado River races past the Eagle Mountains, bends into the Mojave Desert and snakes through the Imperial Valley. The complex system of pumps and canals that comprise California’s water systems make the journey all the more impressive.
Sadly, all the natural wonders and engineering marvels that make this possible do not change the fact that billions of gallons of such a precious resource end up being unceremoniously consumed by vast expanses of unnecessary grass lawns.
While it has been less than a year since most of California’s drought ended, more than 50 percent of its residential water use continues to be on green lawns. The city already established indoor water conservation programs, with its numerous toilet, shower, sink and washer rebates that subsidize the costs of purchasing water-efficient devices, but the state of California has only recently begun testing the waters with outdoor water conservation.
In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown called for improvements to increase the reliability and efficiency of existing water systems in response to the drought. Determined to attain Brown’s mandatory goal of 25 percent reduction in urban water use, Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s largest water distributor, committed more than $500 million to subsidizing turf rebate programs, or programs such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s $42 million initiative that pays citizens to replace their water-guzzling grass lawns with native drought-tolerant plants. Despite its immense popularity, MWD ended funding in the summer of 2015 with no explanation.
“As an MWD director, I was pretty surprised that it was a one-and-done approach,” said Mark Gold, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability. “To immediately stop (the turf rebate program) didn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
Shutting off this funding ensured there was no effective long-term approach to changing traditional lawn culture. Lawn-to-garden programs can be beneficial in reducing outdoor water consumption, saving homeowners’ money and improving local ecosystems, as well as the resiliency of urban green space. California’s drought is far from solved, and the state needs to catalyze a vital shift from archaic, resource-intensive grass lawns to drought-tolerant native gardens – meaning MWD needs to continue subsidizing existing turf replacement programs.
For starters, it is logical to subsidize turf rebate programs. A study conducted by researchers at Carleton College showed that more than 50 percent of homeowners are open to replacing their grass lawns with less resource-intensive alternatives, but more than 60 percent of homeowners were either apathetic or frustrated with caring for their lawns. Unlike indoor water usage, outdoor water use is considered discretionary, making grass lawns even more of a prime target for extensive conservation measures.
Drought-tolerant gardens can save up to 44 gallons per square foot a year. For the average homeowner, this is equivalent to $3,308 saved every 5 years, which is worth around 2.5 years of water bills. There is clearly a strong financial incentive for Angelenos to consider replacing lawns with gardens.
Native gardens also provide various environmental benefits. With temperatures rising every year, vulnerable grass landscapes and trees are dying off. Green spaces provide major benefits to communities: They improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, mitigate extreme temperatures and can reduce stress. While grass is certainly good for this, native plants are not only more effective but also more resilient to temperature changes.
Additionally, highly cultivated lawns deprive important pollinators and native animals of shelter, while excess fertilizer and insecticide usage can lead to runoff that pollutes the local environment. By replacing grass landscapes with native gardens, more local wildlife shelters can be established as a byproduct.
Stable funding from MWD for turf replacement programs also has the added indirect benefit of providing employment opportunities. Newly sprouted companies such as Turf Terminators took advantage of the rebates and provided grass replacement services for homeowners, making them responsible for a huge blossom of green jobs in LA. The company became another casualty of the fund cut to the rebate subsidies and was forced to cut ties with most of its approximately 450-person workforce.
“You had this whole industry show up, and that market disappeared overnight,” Gold said.
The turf rebate program isn’t perfect by any means, however. Although LA’s previous rebate program removed 46 million square feet of grass since 2009, the quality of these removals was questionable. The entrepreneurial spirit of Turf Terminator’s founders is no doubt impressive, but its methods left behind a trail of complaints and resentment, mostly regarding aesthetics, improper planting of native flora, and heavy focus of gravel and rocks instead of plants. New rebate programs will have to take care to enact stricter guidelines to improve the quality of the turf replacements.
However, more tutorials and collaboration with organizations like the California Native Garden Foundation to provide better garden designs can make turf replacement a more streamlined, convenient and all-around attractive process.
With the 2028 Summer Olympics, LA has an opportunity to become a shining example of a sustainable city proud of its native flora and fauna. The first step is getting rid of gaudy green, grass lawns and replacing them with something more colorful, yet conservative.