Grass has been getting a bad rap during the most recent drought, especially in California. Cash-for-grass rebate programs, offered by the state via local water agencies, have been very popular.

But is ripping out lawns really the answer to the drought in California or other arid-climate, drought-stricken states? Or is it an overreaction that will have unintended, adverse consequences down the road?

For landscape maintenance contractors, lawn mower manufacturers and makers of all kinds of lawn care products, including fertilizer; this is not a welcome trend.

Back in 2011, Austin Water in Austin, Texas, began a ‘cash-for-grass’ program. It paid $10 for every 100 square feet of turf removed. The Southern Nevada Water District picked up on it and started its own program for the Las Vegas area. On April 1, 2015, Cali fornia’s

Governor Brown issued an executive order to reduce potable water use in the urban sector. One of its directives called for replacing 50 million square feet of turf with drought-tolerant landscapes.

Thus began the 2015 Turf Replacement Initiative, overseen by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). This statement is on the DWR website: “Outdoor landscaping is the single largest use of water in the typical California home. In most of our yards, grass consumes the most water, so reducing or eliminating how much grass we have in our landscapes can have a significant impact on the state’s water use.”

The rebate program was given a $24 million budget. Its goal was to support the conversion of more than 10 million square feet of turf, or approximately 20% of the statewide goal. Homeowners could get up to $2 per square foot to remove grass and replace it with drought-tolerant plants, through local water agencies.

Before it was all over for budget year 2015, one water purveyor, the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles, had rebated back more than $350 million.

Grass was the major target. “From a policy standpoint, we’d like the residents of the state to consider alternatives to pretending to be like Scotland, and having green, green grass all the time,” said a spokesperson for the Water Board. “There are more drought-tolerant approaches to landscape.”

The green industry seems to be the first to be blamed when there’s a shortage of water. We waste too much of it irrigating landscapes, goes the claim. But do we really? “The California Public Policy Institute looked at the question of how much water is used by which constituents,” said Toro’s Mike Baron.

“If you look at all of the water that’s in our infrastructure, 50% goes to environmental purposes, 40% goes to agriculture, and only 10% is devoted to urban purposes.”

“In California, the estimate is that half of that 10% goes to outdoor landscapes; leaving only 5%,”continued Baron. “So, the question is, do we really want to get rid of every single lawn, just to save 2.5% of the total water supply?” These cash-for-grass programs weren’t without controversy. In the Los Angeles area, one company got the lion’s share of rebate money. Its work engendered many complaints about dead plants, excessive weed growth, and ugly, rock-filled landscapes. Once the rebate money dried up, the company stopped doing turf replacements.

When the water agencies ran out of money, people began assessing what benefits had been achieved.

For one thing, there was no analysis of the return on investment, as far as how much money was paid for removal of grass, versus how much water was actually saved.

Will this turf removal trend spread to other states? That remains to be seen. “We are seeing people tearing out their lawns here in Reno,” said Heidi Kratsch, northern area horticulture specialist at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Cooperative Extension.

“It’s unfortunate, because they really don’t need to tear out their entire lawn. They can maintain parts of the lawn that are functional, and just water them more efficiently. That’s what we try to train people to do, to just be more efficient with watering.”

Previous to this, area residents had been overwatering their lawns, to a ‘ridiculous’ extent, according to Kratsch. Now, it’s a case of going from one extreme to the other, from over-watering lawns to ripping them out entirely.

There must be a happy medium. “I’ve been doing a lot of turf reduction in older neighborhoods, on properties built in the 1970s with wall-to-wall grass. I’ve cut that back 40 to 60%,” said Omega’s Rick Clark. “It preserves the feel of a greenbelt without gobbling up so much gallonage.”

And while he thinks that the days of ‘big turf’ are over, he’s not an advocate of the blanket ‘remove-the-turf-and-throw-in-some-rock’ approach, either. Reducing, but not eliminating turf, along with installing a low-flow or drip irrigation system and properly managing it, is his preferred drought-mitigation technique.

Unintended consequences

When he heard about the turf elimination programs going on in California, Clark responded, “That’s going to heat up everything. They tried that in Las Vegas. It increased the outside temperatures there so much that the cost of cooling people’s homes was driven way up. Any monetary savings was negated by that.”

Kratsch said, “If you take out your lawn, and your trees start to suffer, there’s nothing there to cool your home anymore. You’ve lost your shade, plus the evaporative cooling effect of the lawn.”

As previously stated, the state of Texas lost millions of trees from its extraordinary drought. Unless people could afford to have water hauled to them, their entire landscapes, including the trees, died.

The benefits we get from trees and large shrubs are invaluable. Lawns are pretty darned forgiving, more than any of the other plants. Ripping them out is a short-term solution, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that to trees that relied on lawn irrigation to survive.

Baron says some homeowners who tore out their grass have had ‘rebate remorse,’ especially now that summer’s here. “There was this rush to get rid of turf, and now there’s some bounce-back. People are saying, ‘Maybe I should have kept some of my turf, because it’s a wonderful cooling element, and a great filter of rainwater.’” He thinks that perhaps water purveyors jumped on the turf-removal bandwagon too soon, and didn’t realize what some of these unintended consequences would be.

One of them is suffocated soils. “After they remove the turf, they put a plastic weed barrier down. That just compacts and kills the soil. You had this rich dirt, full of earthworms and all sorts of microorganisms keeping it alive, hanging on to the water. When that all dies, it becomes much easier to compact.”

You have to wonder what will happen in communities that went in heavily for turf replacement once the rain starts coming again. Are all those little rocks and shallow roots of new plantings going to be able to absorb the water? Won’t that create more runoff, which can multiply exponentially and cause serious problems, especially in the new ‘brown’ neighborhoods?

Do we really need to do this?

Baron recalled reading about a University of California, Riverside Extension study, done several years ago, that compared the costs and benefits of turf removal programs. “Two-thirds of the savings from converting turf to drought-tolerant landscapes came from simply fixing the sprinkler system, or adjusting the spacing and pressure.”

“Just putting in new valves, replacing leaky wiper shields, or retrofitting with high-efficiency nozzles and installing smart controllers, can reduce water use by 30%,”said Baron.

Kratsch said she thinks that more water audits should be done, to find the inefficiencies in irrigation systems and correct them, rather than overreacting and completely changing landscapes.

It doesn’t help when people hear mixed messages, filtered through news reports. One day, Californians hear that the state has entered its fifth year of drought; the next day, they hear about relaxed watering restrictions due to a healthy Sierra snowpack.

“I was talking with some of our members,” said Sandra Giarde of CLCA. “They reported that the same clients who had put in all of these drought-tolerant plantings are now calling them back and saying, ‘Things are better now. Rip it all out, and put my turf back in.’” “These contractors were beside themselves,” she continued. “On the one hand, they’re business people, here to make money. However, they also feel a responsibility to educate their clients that the drought’s not over, and in fact, may be our state’s ‘new normal’.”

“They’re saying, ‘If you really want us to, we’ll put the turf back in, but can we at least talk about putting in a rainwater recapture system to sustain it?’” If we’re concerned about reducing our carbon footprint, should we really be getting rid of something that helps? Baron mentioned that 50 square feet of turf produces enough oxygen for a person for one year, if it’s maintained. “With the wholesale movement to replace turf that took place last year, you would have thought someone would say, ‘Wait a sec—we’d better do an environmental impact study first.’” Some people opted for artificial turf, thinking it a better solution.

“The worst of both worlds,” in Baron’s view. It not only kills the soil, but instead of absorbing heat and dissipating it, like grass does, it reflects it back.

What should we be doing?

“We want the green industry to really be mindful that potable water, which is the best water you can make, is being used to water outdoors,” said the water board spokesperson. “We want to treat this as a precious resource.”

One could argue that we are mindful of that, and have treated water as a precious resource for decades. The Irrigation Association’s entire purpose is to promote efficient irrigation. Last November, it held a Drought Summit that included industry leaders, state water officials and others to discuss solutions. Another one will be held this year.

There are lots of things we can to do to cut water use, without resorting to wholesale ‘lawnicide’. More efficient spray heads already exist. We have new technology, in the form of smart controllers and sensors. We can turn to drip irrigation, micro irrigation, rainwater and graywater harvesting, rain gardens, air conditioning condensate and bioswales.

“To me, it’s all about planning,” said the IA’s Mecham. “We know drought will come, so we need to figure out how to survive it when it comes. Policymakers and the green industry need to come together and come up with strategies that will work.”

He added that picking at just one part of a problem never works.

Rather, we should be looking at the problem holistically, because there are a lot of factors that interplay and affect each other.

There’s no single answer to the question of drought, but a myriad of choices and directions. If we work together, we can come up with solutions that will make the grass a little greener.