California drought: Rebates offered for ripping out lawns under nation's largest program

Is lawn removal the new thing?
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Story highlights

  • Southern California water utilities roll out "nation's largest turf removal" program
  • $450 million in incentives is "a historic one-time investment in conservation"
  • "We really want people to shift how they think about outdoor water usage," water chief says

Los Angeles (CNN)In drought-punished Southern California, with the unceremonious push of a steely sodbuster, another lawn bites the dust.

That's one down, and a sprawl to go.
    Here in the land of perpetual sunshine, up to 5,000 residential lawns now vanish each month, converted into drought-resistant gardens and yards in under cash incentives, says the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a consortium of water utilities serving 17 million people.
    It's all part of "the nation's largest turf removal and water conservation program" whose budget was more than quadrupled in May, to $450 million, because of a homeowner rush to save water, the district says.
    "What we're really trying to do is get a change in people's hearts and minds," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the district's general manager. "We really want people to shift how they think about outdoor water usage, their garden and their lifestyle in Southern California."
    Call it a seismic cultural shift triggered by lucrative rebates reaching up to $6,000 to remove front and backyard sod from a home, depending on the city and size of lawn.
    Call the new landscape 50 shades of drought-tolerant plants.
    As Southern California water utilities offer up to $6,000 in rebates to homeowners if they replace lawns with drought-friendly plants, a cottage industry also grows, such as these laborers who specialize in sod removal.
    Here's the deal:
    MWD is a wholesaler that delivers water to 26 cities and water districts in Southern California. It is paying residents $2 per square foot of lawn removed.
    Homeowners in the city of Los Angeles can collect another $1.75 a square foot, courtesy of an aggressive water conservation program by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
    The district estimates $450 million will be paid regionally in rebates by the end of this year. To achieve that budget, MWD in May added $350 million to the program because, it said, "public interest in water-saving rebates, primarily turf removal incentives, continues to set records."
    The program is projected to save more than 70 million gallons of water over 10 years -- enough water for 160,000 households, MWD says.
    Kightlinger calls it "a historic one-time investment in conservation."
    The wholesaler can afford to distribute these whopping rebates because it racked up higher than expected water sales to various districts during the drought.
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    Energizing the rebates -- really a cash incentive to rip out water-guzzling sod -- is the ongoing state of emergency in California, parched under a fourth year of an extreme and now historic drought. Gov. Jerry Brown this year ordered a mandatory 25% reduction in water use for all urban water users compared with 2013 usage.
    Indeed, it never rains in Southern California nowadays.
    In the San Fernando Valley, Olivia Eissagholian and her husband, Patrick, waved goodbye to blades of grass and hello to cactus and gravel.
    "I think we started looking at our lawn that was something that wasn't environmentally friendly, that wasn't cost friendly anymore," Olivia Eissagholian said.
    "I think it's awesome," Patrick Eissagholian added. "It always looks great, and we won't be wasting water."
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    That simple declaration about water is what utility chiefs want to echo throughout the nation's most populous state.
    Californians need to become water wise.
    Lawns account for 50% or more of Southern California residents' water usage, so the math tells you that getting rid of the grass equates to lower bills, the district says.
    "In droughts we typically see people let their lawns go brown, let it die and then reseed and let (the lawn) grow again," Kightlinger said. "We're actually putting out this money (rebates) to try to make it a permanent mindset, a permanent lifestyle change."
    With greenbacks motivating lawn removal, many residents turn to native plants that easily tolerate droughts -- and need less water.
    Those plants aren't all prickly. In fact, many flower and explode with color.
    For example, a garden at the MWD headquarters in Los Angeles features a brilliant array of yellow lantana, kangaroo paw and flowering salvias such as Texas Ranger and Mexican sage.
    "These are examples of California-friendly landscapes, and they require virtually no water once they are set up," Kightlinger said.
    A cottage industry now rises: Landscapers and fledgling companies specialize in stripping front yards and restoring them with plants.
    One firm, Turf Terminators, does the job free -- in exchange for collecting the rebate. It will even do the paperwork to ensure the company gets paid.
    The company estimates it's overhauling up to 1,200 yards a month, with passing motorists and word-of-mouth referrals generating new orders.
    "We've realized, too, that for every homeowner that we service, we get about 3½ additional homeowners signing up in the same neighborhood," said Andrew Farrell, head of business development at Turf Terminators.
    Such are the changing times in Southern California, when keeping up with the Joneses can mean losing the lawn.