Southern California saying goodbye to lawns May 27 2015
LOS ANGELES — When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Californians to reduce urban water use by 25 percent, he declared war on the ubiquitous manicured lawn that — more than palm trees or pools — has for more than half a century been the beloved badge of Southland suburbia.
Among the early casualties is the expanse of green turf that Tom Beck and his wife planted around their Arcadia home 26 years ago.
"I have mixed emotions," Beck said recently as he watched a gardening crew scrape up the grass in his backyard and cart it to a truck headed for the green waste dump.
The Becks' four children grew up playing on the lawn. Their dogs romped on it. They hosted garden parties on it. But "times have changed," Beck said. Now the Arcadia city councilman is re-landscaping his spacious lot to cut his water-guzzling lawn in half.
Big droughts leave their stamp on California. The 1976-77 drought helped launch the move to low-flow plumbing fixtures. This one may be the beginning of the end of that standard of Southern California, the lush lawn.
"The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day — that's going to be a thing of the past," the governor said when he issued his April 1 directive.
The Southland is expected to tear out the equivalent of more than 2,100 football fields of grass — or more than twice the turf removal goal Brown set for the entire state in his emergency drought order.
"I think people will look back 10 years from now (and say) that was the period when Southern California started moving away from lawns," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Demand for turf removal rebates has exploded since Brown's order. In a single week this month, Metropolitan received nearly $49 million worth of requests for conservation rebates, most of them for cash-for-grass subsidies. The board is considering pumping an additional $150 million into the program and is likely to set new rebate limits to stretch the funding. But that clearly won't be enough, and the agency is warning rebate applicants there is no guarantee of approval.
Metropolitan, which supplies the region with water from Northern California and the Colorado River, isn't just trying to get through one of the worst droughts in the state record. It's attempting to permanently alter the climate-defying face of the Southland.
"We need to be leading a change in behavior," said Deven Upadhyay, Metropolitan's water resource manager.
Water in the Southland — first from the Owens Valley, then from the Colorado and from Northern California — was for most of the 20th century cheap and plentiful. Easterners and Midwesterners who streamed into the region could create yards even lusher than those they left behind, oblivious to the fact that they lived in the drought-prone, semiarid West.
"One of the first sounds I associated with waking up in the morning was the clickity-click-whoosh, clickity-click-whoosh of overhead sprinklers watering lawns and gardens," Southern California gardening guru Pat Welsh wrote, recalling her family's 1944 move to Los Angeles on her blog last year. "There was something empty and slightly sad about all these abundant gardens with their over-irrigated lawns. Los Angeles didn't feel real."
Brent Haddad, director of the Center for Integrated Water Research at the University of California at Santa Cruz, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Back in the 1970s, he said, Los Angeles could be described as an urban wetland. "I remember fog so thick in the mornings that I couldn't see my hand in front of my body when I was walking to school — blinding fog that was evaporation of all the irrigation in the morning," he said.