5 Water-Saving Ways to Replace Lawns During California’s Drought

Homeowners are replacing water-thirsty green grass with more eco-friendly alternatives, from rocks to native shrubs.

See how Southern California residents are taking big steps to reduce their water usage in the face of drought.

A grass-busting landscaping company, Turf Terminators launched last July with just three employees. Now the Los Angeles business boasts more than 535 full-time workers and has replaced millions of square feet of grass lawns with water-saving ground cover and drought-tolerant plants.

As the drought persists in California, homeowners’ interest in finding ways to conserve water has grown: Turf Terminators, for instance, already has received more than 60,000 customer inquiries.

For each square foot of grass they remove, homeowners save an average of 44 gallons of water a year. That means grass removal is “an important piece” of addressing California’s ongoing water crisis, says Andrew Farrell, head of business development for Turf Terminators.

Demand for such services has been spurred by California Governor Jerry Brown, who has ordered water suppliers to cut usage 25 percent in the midst of the worst drought in the state’s recorded history. Utilities have helped grease the way by offering homeowners rebates for replacing lawns with water-saving plants and features, in a process called xeriscaping.

Watering lawns accounts for more than half of typical home water use in California, according to a state fact sheet. Nationwide, landscape irrigation is responsible for about one-third of residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California offered a rebate of $2 per square foot to every customer that wants to replace a lawn. The program was so popular that funds were exhausted by May, but the agency expects to restart the program with a new authorization on May 26. Some local water authorities under the district’s umbrella have also added incentives. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offers a total of $3.75 per square foot for the first 1,500 square feet, and $2 per square foot after that.

Customers can apply for a rebate directly and install their own water-efficient landscaping. Or they can hire a company like Turf Terminators, in which they sign over their rebate rights to the company, which then applies for the credit. The customers pay nothing for the conversion of their lawn while Turf Terminators recoups its costs and makes a profit, entirely through the rebates that accrue.

Farrell says the company is working on allowing greater customization, but now customers have two options: a “desert” package or an “oasis” package, depending on the plants offered. All require modest amounts of water.

Whether homeowners redo their lawns DIY or hire a company, here are a few options for replacing water-hungry turf grass:

1. Astroturf

Made famous on sports fields, synthetic grass, or astroturf, is becoming an increasingly popular choice for homeowners, from California to Virginia. A lot of research has gone into the material in recent years, to make it softer underfoot and to reduce the temperature it achieves under intense sun.

Still, there has also been controversy around potential health risks, especially to children, from the chemicals that make up the material.

Farrell says Turf Terminators decided not to offer synthetic turf as a “complex business decision,” but other providers will sell it to those who want to leave watering, and mowing, behind.

2. Groundcover

Instead of grass, a wide range of ground covers can be used to keep out weeds and reduce erosion, which would otherwise be a problem if people suddenly ripped out their grass. Alternatives include rocks and mulch, some of which can be locally sourced. Crushed shells are popular for properties near a beach. Sand also is an option, particularly for those going for a Zen garden look.

3. Native Plants

Many traditional nurseries offer plants that are native to a local area (or try this online search tool). Native plants are adapted to the local climate and require little or no watering to thrive, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Native plants also can provide habitat for local birds, mammals, and insects. They typically earn points for green certification systems like LEED or can help homeowners achieve a “wildlife friendly” designation from their state or a nonprofit.

Gardening becomes a powerful tool to protect the majestic monarch butterfly.

4. Drought-Tolerant Grasses and Shrubs

In addition to native plants, homeowners also can choose from a wide range of drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs from around the world. Examples include lavender, sage, kangaroo paw, and tea tree.

Turf Terminators installs a drip irrigation system with each project because the new plants should be watered sparingly for six months. Operated by an automatic, solar-powered controller, the system drips a few gallons a month to the plant roots. After six months, the plants don’t need to be watered at all, so they “effectively wean people off outdoor water use,” Farrell says.

In contrast, a traditional sprinkler system uses 40 to 100 gallons of water an hour. And about half of that water is typically wasted due to evaporation, wind, and runoff, reports the EPA.

5. Desert Plants

People can exchange grass for such water-sippers as succulents and cactus. These plants are often widely available at nurseries, and they can be kept in pots and moved indoors during colder months in cooler climates. They can be used in large numbers or as accents.

The end result is a more unique environment than a typical lawn, which coats 45 million acres across the U.S., about eight times the size of New Jersey. In her recent book Lawn Gone!, author Pam Penick notes that our current sea of grass is “like driving cross-country on the interstate and seeing the same four fast-food restaurants at every exit.”

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