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Drought Drives Some San Diegans To Go Grass-Free

Nan Sterman and Marilyn Guidroz survey a lawn in Rancho Santa Fe to plan a landscape design that doesn't involve grass. April 30, 2015.
Claire Trageser
Nan Sterman and Marilyn Guidroz survey a lawn in Rancho Santa Fe to plan a landscape design that doesn't involve grass. April 30, 2015.

City not able to rebate everyone who wants to remove their lawns

Drought Drives Some San Diegans To Go Grass-Free
Drought Drives Some San Diegans To Go Grass-Free
If you drive through any local residential neighborhood you’d see the same green grass you'd find in the rest of the country. But the drought means homeowners are not only letting their lawns go brown, they’re changing them to entirely different kinds of landscape.
This graphic shows the amount of water that will be saved each year due to San Diego's April 2014 turf rebates.
This graphic shows the amount of water that will be saved each year due to San Diego's April 2014 turf rebates.

Joey Davis sounded like someone saying goodbye to an old friend. He gazed at the lush green grass in front of his Allied Gardens home and recounted the memories they’d shared together.

“There used to be a lady across the street with a pitbull named Blue, and he’d come out two or three times a day just to roll around in my lawn,” Davis said. “After a long day at work, coming home to a nice green lawn looks good, coming into my driveway it looks nice. I don’t want to lose it, I don’t want to give it up.”

But give it up he will.

Davis signed up for the city’s turf rebate program, which pays homeowners $1.50 a square foot to take out their grass lawns. He said he needs the rebate to help cover the cost of his redesign.

“I’m not going to go make it look like a desert and have it be ugly,” he said. “If I’m going to replace this nice green, I want it to look nice. And so my estimate is at least $2,000 if I do it myself.”

He’s lucky he signed up early. In mid April, San Diego poured $750,000 into the rebate program, and within a week, all of that money dried up. Only 350 property owners were able to snag a rebate before the money ran out. Now the city won’t offer more rebates until July.

The enthusiasm San Diego homeowners showed about the rebates—some were waiting in the lobby of the public utilities department on the first day applications were accepted—signals a potential shift in the local aesthetic. Up until now, if you drove through any local residential neighborhood you’d see the same green grass you'd find in the rest of the country. But the massive California drought means homeowners are not only letting their lawns go brown, they’re changing them to entirely different kinds of landscape.

Halla Razak, the head of San Diego’s public utilities department, said most San Diegans really shouldn’t have had grass lawns in the first place.

“If the lawn is used actively, kids playing in the backyard, or ball fields and so on, then obviously that is a good use for it,” she told KPBS Evening Edition in April. “But if it’s an ornamental lawn in the front yard, the only time you use it is when you’re mowing it, then it really does not belong in San Diego.”

Every square foot of lawn removed saves 44 gallons of water a year. The last round of rebates should eliminate 500,000 square feet of grass, saving enough water to fill 33 Olympic swimming pools.

Because the rebate money ran out quickly, it’s likely San Diego could be saving more. Some residents say ripping out their lawns won’t happen without a financial incentive. Joey Davis said he wouldn’t take out his lawn if it weren’t for the rebate.

In Rancho Santa Fe, the unincorporated area in San Diego County notorious for its high water use, landscape designers Marilyn Guidroz and Nan Sterman scanned another green lawn.

“This is like a canvas waiting to be painted, isn’t it?” Guidroz said.

They’ve been hired by the homeowners to design landscaping to replace the grass.

“Because it’s such a big flat space I wonder if we should do some elevations?” Guidroz said to Sterman.

“Yeah, some mounds,” Sterman replied. “I could see that, especially in front of the walls.”

Sterman said grass lawns aren’t natural to Southern California, but homeowners want them because that’s what they grew up with.

“They say, ‘Well I want what’s familiar to me,’” she said. “And then some people want lawn because they frankly don’t know what else to choose and it’s sort of the default.”

Her job is to try to persuade people to consider other options, including native plants like bluegrass, cacti, or agave. And recently, business has been booming.

Sterman said she’s changing the name of her business from Plant Soup to Water Wise Gardener to focus on helping people with drought-resistant landscaping. Other landscape designers who focus on the water conservation landscaping technique known as “xeriscaping” report demand for their services is way up.

This is good news to Sterman, not just in a business sense. She’s enthusiastic about San Diegans branching out to plants that are natural to the local climate.

“Succulents and other low water plants are some of the most colorful and beautiful plants that we have available to us,” she said. “It’s a matter of knowing which plants to use and then being a little bit experimental. Because we all know what to do with lawns, but a lot of people don’t know what to do with those other kinds of plants. It’s just being brave and doing it.”

While more homeowners are willing to bravely ditch their lawns, the city hasn’t persuaded everyone.

At an April press conference, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was asked whether he plans to take out his grass.

“In my household, just like all households, we’ve been taking steps to lower our consumption,” he said. “That’s what San Diegans have been doing, that’s what we’re encouraging (them) to do. As I said before, that’s the way of life that everybody’s getting together to make sure everyone is doing the right thing.”

Faulconer’s spokesman said Faulconer's family has cut their water use by more than 40 percent since last year and is letting their lawn go brown. But he confirmed that what Faulconer said at the press conference means he won't be taking out his grass.