Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

California’s quest to save water may come at an ecological cost

Ecologists question rebates to replace lawns with artificial turf

LOS ANGELES — Lush lawns have become vilified during California’s historic drought that is searing the state for the fourth consecutive year. And removing thirsty turf has been rewarded with generous incentives from local water districts, rebates so popular that the demand has outstripped funds available.

But now, some ecologists are raising concern that the state’s water conservation fervor may be harmful to the environment.

“The key thing is what are we replacing lawns with,” said Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland, California.

Mulch and native plants are the preferred environmentally sound alternatives. But some are painting their brown grass green and even paving over their yards.

And that's the biggest ecological no-no. Concrete contributes to heat islands, doesn’t retain water and doesn’t provide any nutrients for birds and insects. And the manufacturing process for Portland cement, the key ingredient in concrete, is very carbon intensive.

The heat retention of concrete “creates energy issues for homes and in the end, more electricity is more water,” said Kevin Muno, president of Ecology Artisans, a San Diego company that landscapes farms and residential gardens in a way that mimics nature.

Electrical power production is one of the largest users of water in the United States and worldwide, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But another environmental taboo is emerging: artificial turf.

“Artificial is the worst,” Muno said, whose company website advocates, “Just say, no thanks” to artificial grass. “And they’re giving people rebates for artificial turf. I don’t think that should be an alternative … Lawns might even be better than artificial turf.”

According to critics, artificial grass is made of synthetic materials that can emit noxious gases when sun baked and is tantamount to asphalting because it doesn’t hold rain the same way soil does.

“Artificial turf is great for athletic fields,” said Peter Bowler, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine. “But how plastic do you want to make your environment?”

California should look beyond short-term strategies to save water, he said. And that means landscaping with native plants to create a natural habitat for native species.

The anti-lawn campaign gained even more traction after California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order in April that included replacing 50 million square feet of turf with drought-tolerant landscapes.

There are no estimates of how many square feet of California grass have been yanked out so far. The California Department of Water Resources said it is still compiling the data.

‘Lawns might even be better than artificial turf.’

Kevin Muno,

President, Ecology Artisans

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, which delivers water to cities and local districts that serve 19 million Californians, has allocated $450 million over two years for water conservation programs — $340 million of it for turf removal. 

The agency paid $2 a square foot of grass removed until it stopped taking applications July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. It has paid out more than $129 million for turf removal and approved applications for another $162.5 million. Another $45 million in rebates are pending.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was offering $3.75 a square foot to its customers until July, when the $2 contribution from MWD stopped. Since last year, the program has replaced almost 18.5 million square feet of grass for more than 8,000 residential and commercial customers. 

Michelle Figueroa, spokeswoman for the water agency, said the rebates are not paid until homeowners show proof that they’ve replaced the grass with a permeable surface and that includes artificial turf that allows some water to seep through.

But residents are questioning the practice of rewarding Californians who save water by replacing lawns with fake grass or gravel.

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial asked, “Is fake grass good for Los Angeles during the drought?” And another opinion piece in the same publication was headlined “Don’t gravelscape LA.”

“What we want is to replace a bad thing with a good thing,” Gleick said.

Ecologists say the goal should be more than just saving water. Even the recommended drought-resistant succulents “don’t provide much habitat for birds and bees and other critters,” Muno said.

Despite the widening criticism of payouts for plastic turf, Gleick said there are “lots of new kinds of artificial turf that look better and feel better and don’t get as hot as the old ones.”

But the most important thing about the turf removal program, he said, is that it’s doing something that has long-term benefits for a state that is likely to face droughts for decades to come. He likens the anti-lawn campaign to national anti-smoking or pro-seat belt crusades that took years to penetrate the social consciousness.

“In the short run, we may let lawns die,” he said. “In the long run, people like landscape. Part of the consequences of these programs is to make people change the way they think about lawns.”


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