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San Diego Water Managers Target Grass Lawns For Water Conservation

The new drought friendly lawn at the Chula Vista home of Troy Ray is shown alongside the home's old landscaping in this composite photograph.
Katie Schoolov
The new drought friendly lawn at the Chula Vista home of Troy Ray is shown alongside the home's old landscaping in this composite photograph.
San Diego Water Authority Pays Customers To Get Rid of Grass

You can find a green ribbon of grass in most San Diego yards.

The thirsty transplant is a staple of Southern California landscaping. It is mowed, manicured, imitated and — most significantly — watered.

But grass is no longer king on some San Diego lawns. Steve Glass looks around the backyard of his Mira Mesa home and points out that he gave up the fight against nature a couple of years ago.


“We were, like most people, losing the battle on this lawn,” Glass said. “Because we didn’t want to put a lot of fertilizer on it. We did realize that it probably wasn’t an ecologically good thing to do.”

He pulled out the grass in his suburban backyard and replaced it with drought-tolerant flowering plants on one side.

“We’ve got a little succulent garden up here on the bank, with a manzanita tree,” Glass said.

Herbs and spices are on the other side. Gravel paths connect the patches of plants. Glass said it took some doing, but he changed his mind about what a lawn should look like.

“You get over that hump that says I don’t really need it. And I could save a lot of water if I get rid of it. That’s just the mindset that you have to change,” Glass said. “And I think for a lot of us here in San Diego, that mindset hasn’t changed yet.”


There are people in his neighborhood who still see lawns the old-fashioned way, according to Glass. In fact, several people in his neighborhood have installed grass lawns in the past couple of months.

Glass enjoyed the change in his backyard so much he started considering making the change out front. He was anxious to expand the savings in water and cost.

“We took a larger stance here and said, 'Well, we’re having a drought. We know we’re having a drought, we know we’re going to continue to have droughts,'” Glass said. “So for our purposes we thought, 'Let’s just do our part. Let's take the lawn out and see if we can bring this house down to something reasonable.'”

Some planning, and a financial sweetener from the region’s water authority made it happen.

The backyard of Mira Mesa resident Steve Glass
Katie Schoolov
The backyard of Mira Mesa resident Steve Glass

The grass came out and native plants were put in. Horsehair mulch controls the weeds. A state-of-the-art sprinkler system doles out just enough water for the plants to establish themselves.

Glass’ water use and bill are both down.

Dana Friehauf works for the San Diego County Water Authority. She’s helping plan for the region’s water future.

“I think fundamentally, we live in a desert,” Friehauf said. “We get very little rainfall. I think it is always going to be important for us to use water efficiently out into the future.”

Water use in the region actually dropped for four consecutive years between 2007 and 2011. The sour economy, calls for water conservation, cool weather and rising water prices share credit.

But water use ticked back up in both 2012 and 2013. Daily per capita water use is back above 150 gallons per person after two years below that mark.

About half of the region’s drinkable water feeds landscaping. Friehauf says that makes lawns obvious targets for conservation.

“So as we look out to the future, say 2020, and we look at the mix of resources that are going to provide us a reliable water supply, conservation is an important piece of that puzzle. And that is about 13 percent of that resource pie,” Friehauf said.

Troy Ray was willing to do his part to save water that fed his Chula Vista lawn, but that’s not why he started thinking about a change.

“Maintenance was probably the factor that got me thinking first,” Ray said. “Reduce the amount of maintenance: the fertilizing, the watering, the mowing, the edging, and all those kinds of things.”

A Chula Vista landscaper, Rebecca Herrera, helped turned that slice of green into a garden. The owner of Down to Earth Landscaping and Design is proud of the effort because the final product is not just cactus and rocks.

The yard features drought-tolerant plants and high-tech irrigation.

Ray and his wife enjoy the garden atmosphere and the investment is paying off on their water bill.

The new drought friendly lawn at the home of Troy Ray in Chula Vista.
Katie Schoolov
The new drought friendly lawn at the home of Troy Ray in Chula Vista.

“And you can see here, that from August through January a year ago, we used 61 units of water,” Ray said.

During the same period this past year water use was down to 37 units. That’s a water savings of 39.4 percent.

“If you multiply that up to gallons it comes up to 17,952 gallons of water that we’ve saved,” Ray said.

The San Diego County Water Authority is helping bankroll a turf-replacement program. State and federal grants are paying up to $3,000 to help turn grass yards into more drought tolerant landscaping.

The Water Authority is also offering clinics and sales on water sipping plants at local nurseries.