Updated: Jan 4
"If there is a silver lining to the drought, environmentalists say, it may be the decline of the lawn, the largest irrigated crop in America. Inherited from soggy England where estates were mowed by sheep, the typical suburban lawn has become to many environmentalists a stew of pesticides and pollution."
June 10, 2015
California lawn owners irrigated more acreage last year than drought-pummeled farmers fallowed for lack of water. But the flawless green sward — suburban status symbol and “Downton Abbey” throwback — is under siege.
As California’s big dry deepens, homeowners are lining up for lawn bounties offered by local water districts. Lawn vigilantes have taken to “drought shaming” of celebrities surrounded by emerald acres, and some homeowners have gone so far as to paint their brown grass green.
The lawn industry, meanwhile, is fighting back — insisting that people can be socially conscientious and still enjoy a patch of grass.
No one in the turf rip-out rebate program at Santa Clara Valley Water District had time to talk because “they’re drowning in applications,” said spokesman Marty Grimes. The district’s $2-a-foot rebate persuaded people to pull up just 160,000 square feet of grass in 2013, but so far this year it has eliminated 1.28 million square feet of lawn.
That’s a mere divot compared to the record $450 million in lawn rebates offered this year by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
And the Santa Clara Valley agency isn’t the only one in the Bay Area fielding applications from hopeful homeowners. The Contra Costa Water District, which serves 60,000 homes and businesses in the East Bay, gave out 244 rebates for turf removal last year and is on track to give out more than double that this year. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, with 450,000 homes and businesses in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, awarded 355 lawn conversion rebates in 2014 and had already handed out 251 this year through the end of May.
“They’re popular right now,” said Abby Figueroa, spokeswoman for EBMUD.
Few green fans
If there is a silver lining to the drought, environmentalists say, it may be the decline of the lawn, the largest irrigated crop in America. Inherited from soggy England where estates were mowed by sheep, the typical suburban lawn has become to many environmentalists a stew of pesticides and pollution.
“If you’re mowing weekly and putting chemicals down, you’re absolutely affecting the chain of life,” said John Greenlee, a nationally known horticulturalist and landscape designer in Brisbane. “When you start factoring in the water, then it’s like OK, you’re bringing water from a thousand miles away to have a little green rug.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre than do farmers, and that lawn fertilizers pollute streams and wetlands. Mowing and blowing create carbon and noise pollution, and lawns use four times more water than alfalfa, the next most water-intensive crop.
Esau Angulo puts down cardboard around plants on a lawn in Palo Alto, California, on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. The crew working on the lawn consists of Esau Angulo and his partner Carlos Guzman are on contract with the Santa Clara Valley Water district, is in the process of replacing a lawn in Palo Alto, by installing what is called sheet mulching, a technique meant to mimic the eco-system of a forest floor. Local agencies, like the Santa Clara Valley Water district, are offering homeowners rebates for ripping out their lawns and replacing them with drought-friendly landscaping. Gabrielle Lurie/Special to The Chronicle
First lady Michelle Obama, who tore out a small chunk of White House lawn to plant a pollinator garden last year, urged homeowners last week to do the same to help save bees and monarch butterflies.
In California, residential lawns, along with turf in parks, golf courses, cemeteries and the like, covered 560,000 acres last year, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank. That compares with the 428,000 acres of cropland that farmers fallowed because of the drought.
Greenlee said farm use of pesticides is heavily regulated in California, but homeowners can buy and apply lawn poisons in any amount “without any consequence whatsoever.” He called the conventional lawn “evil.”
Not so fast, said Debbie Barncord, co-owner of Grass Farm in Morgan Hill, the only local sod farm in Santa Clara County, started by her father in 1967.
“People aren’t looking at the full picture,” Barncord said.
Mental health benefits
For starters, she said, homeowners can plant drought-friendly grasses such as dwarf fescue, a type of turf that can survive a month without water. New underground drip irrigation systems yield 70 percent water savings, Barncord said, and organic compost can replace nitrogen fertilizers.
Ripping out a lawn is “like getting rid of rain forest,” Barncord said, citing the ability of grass to produce oxygen, filter water and cool asphalt jungles.
What’s more, Barncord said, people “feel mentally better” around a lawn.
Her customers ask, “Where else is my kid going to play badminton? What will I do for the dogs?” Barncord said. “It’s tough when it’s just bark and native plants.”
Hanak at the Water Policy Center thinks lawns waste water, but she said, “We don’t need to be extreme, either.
“No one is saying we shouldn't have lawns anywhere in California,” Hanak said. Lawns do things that other landscaping can’t, such as provide a place for dogs and children to play and people to picnic or play soccer.
But as an ornamental feature, Hanak said, lawns are “kind of silly.”
Besides saving water, yards that aren’t grassy are better havens for wildlife, said Kathy Kramer of San Pablo, coordinator of the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tours in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
When she and her husband moved into their home about 15 years ago, they began adding native plants, including yampa, a host for the anise swallowtail butterfly.
“As soon as I put it in, right outside my kitchen window, I noticed swallowtail butterflies fluttering through the yard,” Kramer said. “A lot of them. And when I looked, there were eggs and caterpillars on the yampa. It was amazing how it happened.”
Ken and Roxanne Honeycutt of San Lorenzo yanked out their front lawn last summer, redoing it with rocks, a flagstone garden pathway and water-friendly plants.
“The lawn was beautiful and pretty to look at, but it took up so much water and so much time,” said Ken Honeycutt, 64, who drove a delivery truck for a living and called it quits three years ago. “As I got older, I asked myself, ‘Why do I want to go out and mow the lawn?’ It just seemed like a no-brainer.”
The Honeycutts received a $571 rebate from the East Bay Municipal Utility District for eliminating the turf, which comes in the form of a credit on their water bills. They haven’t had to pay for water in months.
“Any time I see a green lawn now, I go, ‘What is your problem?’” Ken Honeycutt said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead