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Yanking Out Lawns Saves Water and Money

It only took a few water bills last summer to change the attitudes of Scripps...

Photo by Angela Carone / KPBS

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

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

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.

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