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Last updated: Sun. Aug. 24, 2014 - 06:29 pm EDT

Californians tear out lawns to cope with drought

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Rick Blankenship was tired of an insatiable lawn he couldn't keep green, no matter how he watered it, so he decided to tear it out.

Three years later, he brims with pride at his new front yard in Long Beach, California, carpeted with natural sage- and emerald green-colored ground covers and shaded by flowering magnolia and peppermint willow trees.

"It just sounded like a great way to save money and at the same time, kind of beautify my landscape," said the 51-year-old medical sales director.

As California faces an historic drought, more residents are following in Blankenship's footsteps and tearing out thirsty lawns to cut down on water use. Water agencies across the state have been encouraging the change by offering thousands of dollars in rebates to help homeowners make the switch to a drought-friendly landscape with better odds of surviving dry spells common to the local climate.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which covers 19 million people, received requests to remove 2.5 million square feet in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January, said Bill McDonnell, the consortium's water efficiency manager.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, up from just five a week before Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency earlier this year. "We are just buried right now," said Joe Berg, the agency's water efficiency programs manager.

The trend isn't just catching on in Southern California. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests for applications for turf removal rebates during the first six months of the year, a five-fold increase from the same period in 2013, said Marty Grimes, a district spokesman.

Water officials hope the shift is more than a fad and marks the beginning of a transformation in the way residents view neighborhood landscapes.

Most lawns in Southern California don't bear greenery other than grass but water agency officials say the interest in turf removal programs — fueled in part by an increase in rebate rates — is encouraging.

"Twenty years from now, the ideal thing is, you take your dog for a walk in a neighborhood and the guy who has grass on his yard would be the abnormal yard," McDonnell said, adding more than 21 million square feet of turf have been removed in Metropolitan's six-county service area since the incentives began.

For many years, water agencies focused on improving the efficiency of indoor plumbing, where installing a low-flush toilet, for example, would have guaranteed results. Not so with gardening, which relies on residents to turn off the sprinklers or hose to save water, Berg said.

Now, agencies are turning their attention to outdoor uses, which make up the majority of water consumption in some residential areas, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Most are encouraging the use of drought-friendly plants, though some also allow synthetic turf.

Residents who remove their lawns not only weed out mowing and fertilizing costs but also save on water. In Long Beach, which began its turf replacement program four years ago, residents have cut their water bills by about 20 percent, said Matthew Lyons, director of planning and conservation for the city's water department.

Ripping out a 1,000-square-foot front lawn in Long Beach saves about 21,000 gallons of water a year, and amounts to roughly $86 in annual savings on homeowners' water and sewage bills, he said.

The city, which requires participants to cover at least 65 percent of the landscape with plantings, has funded more than 1,300 projects to date.

For years, conservation advocates have urged residents to plant drought-friendly landscapes but previously saw few takers. Many homeowners thought the gardens would be dry, dusty and filled with prickly cactus until they saw neighbors creating landscapes with lush evergreens and California lilacs, said Lili Singer, director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants.

Until recently, they also had little financial incentive to make the switch.

While the rebate — which runs from $2 to $3.50 a square foot in Southern California — helps cover the cost of replacing lawns, some homeowners said they spent far more to hire landscape designers and carve out decks, walkways and sitting areas to create a new outdoor space. And while a garden may need less maintenance than a lawn, there's still weeding and pruning to be done.

For some families, a grassy lawn serves a purpose by giving young children a safe place to play, Berg said.

Some residents have resorted to spray painting their lawns to keep up appearances until they can overhaul the landscape or the drought eases. The vegetable-based dye lasts only a few months, but lets them stop watering.

"This is a much more cost-effective option for now," said Mara Tapia, who paid $350 to paint the parched front yard of her suburban Los Angeles home until she can save enough money for artificial turf.

But for those who are tired of seemingly futile efforts to prevent grass from browning under the summer sun, tearing out a lawn has its pluses. Building a circle of trees around his home gave Blankenship some privacy from his busy street in Long Beach — except for the colorful butterflies and hummingbirds now apt to visit.

"You're not going to get butterflies with a lawn," Blankenship said, adding that they fluttered through the front yard on the first day he planted. "So it's kind of a win-win situation."


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