Would you rip up your lawn for $6 a square foot? Welcome to drought-stricken California

Aug 20, 2022, 7:00 AM
California drought...
Some areas are beginning to see front yards without grass as a status symbol. Photo credit: CNN.

(CNN) — Doreen Jansen looked at the brown hills from her Thousand Oaks home.

“My plants are suffering,” Jansen said. “The animals, coyotes, rattlesnakes; they are all out in droves. It’s dry and unusually hot.”

The signs of drought are everywhere here, from the shrinking lakes to the deathly drained color of trees and earth. Jansen decided to rip out her grass and put in arid plants.

She’s not alone. The megadrought affecting the American West has been record-breaking, with no tangible relief in sight. It’s forcing cities to crack down on lawn-watering, and paying residents to replace their lawns with drought-resistant plants.

Grass lawns need lots of water

Grass is the single largest irrigated “crop” in America, surpassing corn and wheat, a frequently-cited study from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found. It noted by the early 2000s, turfgrass, mostly in front lawns, spanned about 63,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Georgia.

Keeping front lawn grass alive requires up to 75% of just one household’s water consumption, according to the study, which is a luxury California is quickly becoming unable to afford as the climate change-driven drought pushes reservoirs to historic lows.

The largest district in the state, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, is paying $2 per square foot of grass pulled out. Water district customer cities and agencies can add more.

Bill McDonnell, senior resource specialist with the water district, envisions a future when a residential lawn is what he calls “abnormal” in Southern California. McDonnell estimates that 70% of water use in his district goes to outdoor irrigation, led by lawns.

“Each one of your sprinkler heads is like a shower,” he said. “You might have 15 or 20 sprinklers in your front yard. That’s 15 or 20 showers going off. That’s why we focus on outdoors (for water conservation).”

The Metropolitan Water District told CNN the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 applications.

Officials are already taking steps to reduce water deliveries

Federal officials declared a Tier 2 water shortage for the Colorado River starting next year. It will not directly impact water deliveries to California, but experts warn if the West’s water crisis continues its current intensifying trend, California will soon be subject to steep water cuts.

And there is growing concern the current shortage system is not enough to save the river in the face of a historic, climate change-driven drought. Colorado River stakeholders, including Southern California, are now negotiating drastic cuts which could slash water deliveries by 25%.

The horrific drought led Larry Romanoff to combat climate change by ripping out his grass and replacing it with cactuses and decorative stones. Romanoff will collect $10,500, a whopping $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home.

“No matter how much water I put on my lawn, I still had ugly brown spots,” Romanoff recounted. He replaced an estimated 1,700 square feet of grass.

The Coachella Valley Water District and its customer, the city of Rancho Mirage, are each paying Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn torn out.

“Here’s a chance to get rid of the lawn, save some money, and help the state.”

Several state agencies told CNN they believe $6 a square for rebate is the highest in California, perhaps even a record.

The removal business in Rancho Mirage exploded in May when the city council voted to fund $500,000 in grass removal rebates from its treasury.

“The turf removal program was so popular, all the rebate money was claimed almost immediately,” said councilman Steve Downs. Downs noted Rancho Mirage managers voted to fund an additional $1.5 million in rebates, bringing the grass removal payout bonanza to $2 million.

Richard Baker of Rancho Mirage called his decision to trade grass for cash at $6 a square foot a “no-brainer.”

“It was pretty surprising that they went that high,” Baker said with a jubilant laugh. Water agencies will pay Baker a little more than $24,000 for more than 4,000 square feet of lawn removed. Baker replaced the grass, paying $42,000 for artificial turf and labor. He expects to reap dramatic savings with little need for watering and gardeners.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California are offering some sort of turf removal rebate, both residential and commercial.

The rebates require applications, and adherence to each district’s rules on what types of trees, plants, mulch, rocks and more are acceptable alternatives.

The Metropolitan Water District in the Los Angeles area does not allow artificial turf as a substitute for lawn.

“It’s not an environmentally sensitive product,” said McDonnell, gesturing at a large garden of drought-resistant plants, from manzanita to sage to California lilac. He stressed he wants to see those plants be “normal” in California yards.

Back in Thousand Oaks, Brian Godley and his Picture Build landscaping crew tore out more than 3,000 square feet of Doreen Jansen’s grassy park and replaced it with deer grass, dwarf fountain grass, lemon grass, along with trees, bushes and flowers.

Many of the new water district rules for grass replacement in California also require homeowners to add rain barrels and configure the yard to catch and hold rainwater.

“You have to capture natural water, so it does not flow off into city drains,” said Godley, who currently has 25 lawn removal projects in the pipeline.

Godley added he is also putting in special types of soil additives which are like crystals, expanding to attract and hold water.

“I didn’t want to say goodbye to my beautiful lawn, it’s like a park,” Jansen lamented. “But I realized that the grass wasn’t going to make it.”

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Would you rip up your lawn for $6 a square foot? Welcome to drought-stricken California