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Yanking Out Lawns Saves Water and Money

Above: It only took a few water bills last summer to change the attitudes of Scripps Ranch homeowners Meg Kaufman and Norm Bornstein. They pulled out their lawn and replaced it with water conservation landscaping.

Audio

Aired 6/24/09

The San Diego County Water Authority says nearly 60 percent of our drinking water is used for lawns and other landscaping. Mandatory outdoor water restrictions means some lawns will go brown this summer. But, as KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce tells us, some people are pulling up their grass. It's part of our week-long series: "H2NO: San Diego Going Dry."

KPBS Special Report

H2NO: San Diego Going Dry

Steve Jacobs is the president and  project manager for Nature Designs Landscaping in Vista. Jacobs says Xeriscape can be green and full of beautiful plants.
Enlarge this image

Above: Steve Jacobs is the president and project manager for Nature Designs Landscaping in Vista. Jacobs says Xeriscape can be green and full of beautiful plants.

Jacobs says this landscaping requires no mowing, no edging and no weekly maintenance, just a little weeding and trimming about once per month.
Enlarge this image

Above: Jacobs says this landscaping requires no mowing, no edging and no weekly maintenance, just a little weeding and trimming about once per month.

Jacobs converted a steep slope on the south side of the home from ice plant to a drought-tolerant bedding plant. He added burlap under the new bedding to prevent water from flowing down the slope onto the sidewalk and street below.
Enlarge this image

Above: Jacobs converted a steep slope on the south side of the home from ice plant to a drought-tolerant bedding plant. He added burlap under the new bedding to prevent water from flowing down the slope onto the sidewalk and street below.

The San Diego County Water Authority says nearly 60 percent of our drinking water is used for lawns and other landscaping. Mandatory outdoor water restrictions means some lawns will go brown this summer. But, as KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce tells us, some people are pulling up their grass. It's part of our week-long series: "H2NO: San Diego Going Dry."

More of us may need to become deviants to stretch our limited water supply.

"It is normal when you drive down the street to see every front yard have a large lawn," Maureen Stapleton says. "That is tradition."

Stapleton is the General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

"And what is standing out now are those that have substantially modified their landscaping into non-lawn for the front yard," Stapleton says. "That is truly a deviation from what has been considered normal activity."

Stapleton talked behavioral psychology at a recent water conservation summit.

Motivating people to alter landscapes is one of the key strategies for water conservation.

It only took a few water bills last summer to change the attitudes of Scripps Ranch homeowners Meg Kaufman and Norm Bornstein.

"The lawn was starting to get brown and we were watering it more and more," Bornstein explains. "And our water bill was getting higher and higher, we're using all this water. And then, I have a friend of mine that I run with and he said 'hey, have you heard about zero landscaping?' And I said, "what's that?"

Xeriscape uses drought-tolerant and native plants which require much less water than lawns.

Although thirsty grass dominated most of the 1500 square foot backyard, Bornstein wasn't sold on swapping it for plants and flowers.

"We thought, you know, drought-tolerant meant cactus and desert kind of stuff," Bornstein says. "And landscaper Steve he says 'no, no, no, no, you can have beautiful flowers and everything like that and still not use a lot of water' and he was right."

"Landscaper Steve" is Steve Jacobs, project manager for Nature Designs Landscaping in Vista.

Jacobs says Xeriscape can be green and full of beautiful plants.

He transformed the Scripps Ranch backyard into a series of pathways with brightly-colored flowers and swatches of green ground covering to create a carpet-like appearance.

"No mowing, no edging, no weekly maintenance," Jacobs says. "This yard you can go into probably once a month and just do a little weeding and trimming. So it's a fraction of the maintenance and water use."

He says using smart irrigation controllers and drip systems also increases the efficiency of the water that is used.

"People don't realize that you can irrigate slopes, ground covers, your whole yard with a drip system," Jacobs says. "It's really versatile and very effective."

Jacobs also converted a steep slope on the south side of the home from ice plant to a drought-tolerant bedding plant.

He added burlap under the new bedding. The burlap prevents water from flowing down the slope onto the sidewalk and street below.

Jacobs has some advice if you want to shift to a drought-tolerant landscape.

"Deal with a professional," Jacobs says. "I think starting with that, doing a design before you do the installation, really thinking it out and making sure that you're making the right choices in what you want to do in your yard."

There are a lot of options for do-it-yourselfers. A good first stop is The Cuyamaca College Water Conservation Garden. The garden's web site also offers a list of resources and tips.

People that don't convert their lawns to more drought-tolerant gardens may wind up paying a steep price to keep their lawns green.

Some water agencies in San Diego County are introducing tiered rates. The more water you use, the more you'll pay.

Bill Rose with the San Diego County Water Authority says it's one way to encourage conservation.

"Government needs to step up and the retail water agencies need to step up with a pricing plan or some other measures, regulatory as an example, to enforce with customers that they need to change their water habits," Rose says.

He says a "cash for grass" program could be another incentive.

"It's possible and we are looking at those," Rose says. "We've offered a landscape grant program in the past. We'll continue to look at that to see its effectiveness along with all of our other conservation programs."

The increasing cost of keeping the lawn green may push more homeowners to pull out the grass - just as Meg Kaufman and Norm Bornstein did.

It is the type of deviant behavior water officials say is necessary to stretch our limited supply.

Comments

Avatar for user 'MattSd'

MattSd | July 13, 2009 at 10:19 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Yet the Co2 that the grass lawn eats up is 50x greater than the drought tolerant landscape.
So now it is going to cost you even more becasue Al Gore is going to charge you under Cap and Trade so they can plant a tree and water it somewhere else where it won't help you and your area.
Urban areas have a higher Co2 dnsity in the air because they don't have areas like this that can soak it up from people, street level cars, etc.
This let's it rise up into the atmosphere before getting absorbed by appreciative landscaping, thus causing the problems with Co2 in the atmosphere. Heavy lush landscaping and Urban Sprawl is the solution, NOT the problem.
Oh, but that won't help the socialist agenda that wants to tell you how to live your life every second of the day!
Wake up people! And tell your Democrat/Socialist politician to restore the pumping to help with so called Global Warming, I mean what they are calling it this week,Climate Change, instead of trying to save a worthless fish that is thriving in other areas outside of the man made canal.

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Avatar for user 'crysharris'

crysharris | July 13, 2009 at 2:08 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

I'm not sure MattSd knows what Socialism means, however, I agree that we need to re-visit the protection of the delta smelt. We are in a water emergency.

Nevertheless, even with the delta water, we need to conserve and find other water sources. We need to recycle our water because sending water out to sea is ridiculous; especially considering that the "clean" drinking water we're using to flush our toilets is recycled Las Vegas water. We need to water smarter, less, and preferably with grey water where possible.

As soon as someone comes out with an economical and attractive surface that will stand up to kids and pets, I'll rip out my thirsty lawn (backyard only). Until then... I water.

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Avatar for user 'pechka'

pechka | July 14, 2009 at 2:39 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

No matter how much we don't like it, the fact is that we are in a drought-0---and that we live in a largely DESERT terrain. Lush landscaping is so beautiful and wonderful, but there are so many other ways of planting up your yard, that even if climate change were not real or a "Socialist plot" (LOL) instead of hateful reality, many folks would opt for xeriscape (low-water requiremment) landscaping anyway. One example? Lavender: It smells beautiful, keeps away a myriad of destructive insects, gophers hate it, on and on! (I think that it is why my garden probably has most of SD's honeybees living in it....) Matilija poppies: Huge gray-green foliage, up to 10 ft tall, spreads easily, blooms in May with hundreds of hand-sized, sweet-scented white blossoms----it looks like a bride. We can grump or adapt. The water situation is only going to get more dire.

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Avatar for user 'llMcLaughlin'

llMcLaughlin | July 14, 2009 at 4:32 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Wake up already San Diego!! We live in a desert. Stop using valuable (imported) water to make your yard look like you live in New Jersey! And stop blaming everything and everybody else. The reality is that everything green in San Diego is ultimately artificial. Grown not from rain fall, but imported water. We get our "gotta-have-a-green-lawn" paradigm from a midwest and east coast mentality, not reality.

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Avatar for user 'FightBadGovt'

FightBadGovt | July 20, 2009 at 3:01 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Homeowners Associations (HOAs) force people to put in lawns and water them, even if the property owners object to it. Violate the HOAs gods and they will fine the dickens out of you. So people caved in and put in grass and lived with massive water bills and environmental harm because they were threatened if they did not.

The San Diego City Council was notified about this years ago, but refused to do anything about legally prohibiting requirements by HOAs for high-water-usage plants such as grass.

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Avatar for user 'proullard'

proullard | July 25, 2009 at 10:06 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Conserving water has nothing to do with either political party. People need to get beyond being short sighted and look at the big picture instead of only at the local level.

Being wasteful with anything be it water, oil or energy is not good economics or good sense. Conserving water is important for everybody considering we do live in a semi-desert. This NOT the East coast and a nice green lawn is an appropriate use of a limited resource, mainly water. Las Vegas realized the importance of water conservation and they pay people to tear out their lawns.

Agricultural practices use up an enormous amount of water and maybe wasteful because of inattention to leaks and continuous evaporation of water. The plight of the Delta smelt is just a small indicator that something is wrong with the way we manage and allocate water.

Everyone needs to stop thinking of just themselves and realize that we can't have everything our way, we can't keep on consuming resources like there was no tomorrow. Complaining about water conservation only adds to the problem, but doesn't provide solutions.

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Avatar for user 'bernasconi'

bernasconi | July 28, 2009 at 1:19 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Or you could just be like me and my wife:
- Plan a water sipping garden,
- Rip out everything in the back yard,
- And then never get around to planting anything so now we use no water.

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