What Will California Look Like After the Lawn?

In response to the drought, a huge amount of grass is being torn out and replanted with drought-tolerant landscaping, changing the state’s aesthetic.

(Photo: Flickr)

Jul 10, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

A gray-haired woman shopping for plants with her young son on a recent weekend wandered through a selection of drab-leafed plants, pointing and querying.

“Is this drought tolerant?” she asked an employee of Los Angeles’ Sunset Nursery, who patiently helped her navigate through the aisles, showing off the thorny agaves, the fragrant sages, the glossy green leaves of the eventually blue-flower-blooming ceanothus.

With drought-tolerant plants, the employee explained, you only have to water once or twice a week during the summer—far less than what’s needed to keep a lawn green in the dry heat of Southern California. As she picked out plants, the woman asked if the nursery could supply her with paperwork saying the plants were drought tolerant.

Along with nearly 60,000 other homeowners, businesses, and government agencies, she was taking advantage of what has proven to be one of the Metropolitan Water District’s most successful water conservation programs. Want to tear up your lawn and replace it with plants suitable for an arid climate? The MWD, a cooperative of water utilities that serves 19 million people in six counties across Southern California, will pay you $2 a square foot—up to $6,000 per private resident—to do so. Or it would have, until the $340 million it had earmarked for the program ran out on Thursday.

The program, which has existed for years on an annual budget of about $20 million, received a huge influx of applications after Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory urban water use reductions in April. In December of last year, the conservation rebate program, the largest in the nation, had its budget bumped from $40 million to $100 million; in May, an additional $350 million was added to the program. The total budget of $450 million includes $110 million to subsidize purchases of things like water-saving appliances and rain barrels. Currently, there are no plans to add more money to the turf removal program, but local utitlies are trying to make up the difference.

Demand for the turf removal program has far outstripped interest in low-flush toilet rebates, and with 14,000 yards completed and another 45,000 applications approved, the funds are tapped. (Overall, less than 6,000 commercial locations will have new landscaping subsidized by MWD.) Once all the projects have been finished, the program will have helped dig up between 150 and 170 million square feet of lawn—more than 2,600 football fields’ worth of grass, and three times more than the goal Brown set for the entire state.

“We look to save 80,000 acre-feet of water every year,” Sherita Coffelt, a public affairs officer at MWD, said in an interview, “and that is about enough to provide water to 160,000 households for a year.”

California cities use about 9 million acre-feet of water a year, according to the Pacific Institute, which amounts to roughly one-fifth of the state’s developed water resources. While urban water use pales in comparison to the irrigation demands of the state’s agriculture industry, cutting back on the amount of water used to keep lawns green, flush toilets, and wash sidewalks and cars is less of a challenge than upending a $46 billion industry built around water rights, irrigation canals, and ever-deeper wells. The Pacific Institute estimates that urban use could be reduced to as little as 2.9 million acre-feet a year—and changing the way outdoor landscaping looks is key to achieving that. Roughly half of urban water use goes to lawns, pools, and other outdoor applications, and outdoor water demand could drop by between 30 and 70 percent by cutting back on the amount of grass planted across California yards.

But as the recent success of the turf removal program—and the demonizing of lawns by private drought shamers and city and state government officials alike—even the most water-conscious Californians might not be ready to come to terms with the post-lawn aesthetic.

The look of landscaping changes with time, with trends, with catastrophes. By 1989, Dutch elm disease had all but reshaped the streets of the suburban Midwest by wiping out nearly all of what had been one of the country’s most prominent shade trees in the early 20th century. As Michael Tortorello wrote eloquently in The New York Times last year, few gorgeous catalpa trees have been planted since the 1930s—they simply fell out of style. In Los Angeles, before infrastructure projects like the century-old California Aqueduct brought plentiful cheap water to Southern California, lawns were something residents left behind when they moved West. The Golden State, after all, gets its nickname from the color many native grasses take on when they go dormant during the hot summers.

But as my grandmother once told me about moving to California from New York during the summer in the mid-1950s, the hills didn’t look poetically golden on first impression—they were brown.

Here’s the thing about newly planted gardens: They don’t look great. It takes time for plants, especially some native species, to become established, to fill in, to start flowering, to start looking something like the beautiful natural landscapes found in California, in the Mediterranean, and in other dry, non-desert places around the world. Low water doesn’t have to mean cacti and succulents. But it does likely mean expanses of mulch, gravel, or decomposed granite—ground covers that hold down soil without letting water run off of it.

But if overwatering your lawn is a good way to catch the ecologically righteous ire of your neighbors, killing it and replacing it—or hiring a certain entrepreneurial landscaping firm to do so for you—can elicit similar responses. Having the only brown lawn on the block breaks a very old social compact and is a quick way to be reminded that front yards are seen as semi-communal space that can impact property values, even if that isn’t the case legally. Until recently, a number of municipalities in Southern California had local ordinances that allowed for fines to be levied against residents who didn’t keep up appearances with a green lawn.

When I recently replanted my own parkway with drought-tolerant plants and covered the bare dirt with mulch, a neighbor asked me if I was making a litter box for all of the feral cats on my street. The comment came after he told of the high water bills he used to pay for liberally watering the fruit trees planted behind an old house he lived in.

It may be, however, that the focus on lawns—and ripping them out—is somewhat misdirected. Just as consumers who live in environmentally friendly communities might be more inclined to buy a Prius over another fuel-efficient car that doesn’t aesthetically read as a hybrid vehicle—“A sort of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’–type concept but applied to efforts to make society better,” as economist Steve Sexton, who cowrote a paper on the topic, told Freakonomics—Californians may be unwittingly performing their conservation for neighbors while ignoring other opportunities to use less water.

When it comes to indoor water use, changing showering and cleaning habits, switching to efficient appliances, and fixing leaks can drop individual water use from around 50 gallons per day down to 32 gallons per day, again according to the Pacific Institute. If all Californians were so judicious with their water use in instances where the neighbors aren’t watching, the state could save 1.6 million acre-feet annually—far more than the 80,000 acre-feet expected to be saved thanks to the landscaping changes brought about by MWD’s turf removal funds.

Gravel—and griping over it—is only a rough draft of the new aesthetic of Southern California landscapes that the drought is helping to bring about. Even in the near term, with a potentially record-setting El Niño developing in the Pacific, a profusion of California poppy and other wildflower blooms may be blanketing much of that bare ground cover come early next year. The tiny, sparse clump of grasses and shrubs—penstemon, lupine, deergrass, ceanothus—in my parkway will grow into the buffer space I left between them, some stretching to as much as six feet wide.

Then there’s the long game—the various slow-growing species of California oaks and other shade trees. You have to be more than unhurried to plant a coastal live oak sapling in your front yard; such a tree won’t reach its full height for close to a century. But if California wants to retain a leafy, suburban middle-American aesthetic in the post-lawn era, look no further than South Pasadena. Unlike the broad, palm-lined boulevards of neighboring Los Angeles, the small town’s street shade is predominantly provided by mature native trees. The unique landscape has been a boon to the film industry, which repeatedly uses quaint South Pasadena as a stand-in for another part of the country where shady residential streets are lined with different species of oaks and sycamores: the Midwest.