In California - a $350 million social experiment over lawns
California water agencies that spent more than $350 million in the last two years of drought to pay property owners to rip out waterslurping lawns are now trying to answer whether the nation’s biggest lawn removal experiment was all worth the cost. Around the state, water experts and water-district employees are employing satellite images, infrared aerial photos, neighborhood drive-bys and complex algorithms to gauge just how much grassy turf was removed.
They also want to know whether the fortune in rebates helped turn California tastes lastingly away from emerald-green turf. “How well did it work? That’s really key when we’re working on historic investments,” said Patrick Atwater, a project manager at the California Data Collaborative, a coalition of utilities and other water-related entities grappling with the question.
Removing lawns may sound like a small, wonky step, compared to building dams. But the green turf in American yards actually stands as a worthy target for water savings, a public enemy in the eyes of many during a drought such as California’s fiveyear-old one. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates one-third of all water used by American households goes to watering lawns and gardens. That’s 9 billion gallons of water each day enough to supply drinking water daily for nine cities the size of New York. In 2015, after a devastatingly dry winter, Gov Jerry Brown ordered 25percent water conservation by cities and towns.
He mandated $25 million in state-government spending to help cover the costs of low-income California families in particular removing their grass, and putting less-thirsty, climate-suitable plants in their yards instead. Brown set a goal of eliminating 50 million square feet of lawn. That breaks down to less than two square miles of greenery, out of what the Public Policy Institute of California think-tank has estimated at around 1,000 square miles of watered yards statewide. But state spending proved a drop in the bucket compared to the money local water districts put into lawn rebates.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a giant water wholesaler providing water to Los Angeles and more than two dozen other cities, counties and water districts, poured just over $300 million into lawn rebates from 2014 on, removing five square miles of lawn. MWD doubled its rebate offer to $2 for each square feet of lawn removed, and the lawn rebates quickly became the district’s most popular program ever. Workers processed as much as $10 million in rebate applications a week at peak. In July 2015 alone, Southern Californians applied for rebates to remove the equivalent of 1,665 front lawns. —AP