The Un-Greening of California

California-friendly landscaping – photo courtesy of Martin Fletcher,


We Californians love our grass!

The juxtaposition of bright green blades illuminated by rays of sun poking through fluffy white clouds floating across a light blue sky just gives us a warm glow inside. But the hard reality of drought is causing us all to re-think our love of lawns.

According to the state Department of Water Resources, annual water demand for residential and large landscape irrigation now accounts for about 45% of urban demand, down from 50% in 2009. Based on an estimated 8.8 million acre feet per year of urban demand, this means that about 3.9 million acre feet – more 1.25 trillion gallons – are still being poured onto California lawns each year. Most of that is drinking water.

At times like these, it makes sense to take a pause and ask ourselves: how much do we really love and need those lawns?  Are there other alternatives that we could love nearly as well?


For many years, water managers throughout the state planning for the next drought have tried to wean their customers off of green, in favor of “California friendly” drought tolerant plantings.  Mind, we are not talking about large expanses of sand dunes and cacti. In fact, as seen by the photo above, there is quite a bountiful portfolio of beautiful choices. Many also tend to be very low maintenance. A quick google for “California friendly landscape” will return many sites with extensive how-tos – from photos and names of drought tolerant plants, to tips about landscape design and water-efficient irrigation.  The City of Poway’s Plantastic Possibilities brochure has some great examples, as does Irvine Ranch Water District’s CalScape website.  An inventory of drought-tolerant plants can also be found at [/one_third] [one_third]


To help customers take that emotional first step, many water agencies throughout the state offer incentives to help offset the costs of replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes.

  • The Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts currently offer $1 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-efficient landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet – an incentive of $5,000.
  • The City of Long Beach is offering $3.50 per square foot for up to 1,000 square feet of lawn replacement.
  • Irvine Ranch Water District’s Turf Removal Rebate offers $2.00 per square foot for lawns that use potable water, and $1.00 per square foot for lawns that use recycled water. The program requires a commitment to replace a minim of 250 square feet – there is no maximum!
  • The City of Roseville has been offering $0.50 per square foot, up to $1,000 per site (although the City reported that demand was so high, it had exhausted its budget for fiscal year 2013/2014 – additional funds were to become available soon).
  • The City of Napa is offering $1.00 per square foot, up to 750 square feet. However, due to high demand, the City’s website states that it may take 8 weeks to schedule pre-inspections to confirm eligibility.

This list is a very small sample of the many cities and counties throughout the state that offer incentives for turf removal and replacement with drought-tolerant plants. The programs range widely with respect to the level of incentives and the amount of available program funding. Call your city or local water agency to find out what is available in your area.   [/one_third] [one_third_last]

Clinging to Green

Unconvinced that anything can take the place of grass, some individuals and organizations have resorted to painting their brown lawns to maintain the illusion of lush, green lawns. While this may be a quick fix for some, it does nothing for the long-term. We need to let go of our love for large green expanses of lawn, in favor of diverse, interesting, drought tolerant plants.

Fall is the Best Time to Plant

As we approach fall, we will all need to stay focused on the long-term solution:  we need to replace substantial quantities of grass throughout the state with California friendly plants. This doesn’t mean that there should be no grass in California – just less of it; and the lawns that we do have should use non-potable water sources and water responsible irrigation systems.

[1] California Water Plan Update 2013, Public Review Draft, p.3-5 [2] Ibid, p.3-3


[The author lives in a planned community managed by an HOA. Residents were advised that in order to keep common areas green, we would need to meet all water reductions on our side of the meter. Through careful and selective watering, my husband has significantly reduced our water usage; but we know that in large part, we were able to do that primarily because there isn’t a single blade of glass in our backyard, and nearly all of our plants are drought tolerant. Interestingly, we chose these plants for their appealing look and low up-keep. The fact that they were also drought tolerant was merely a bonus at the time.] [/one_third_last]

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