“My plants are suffering,” Jansen said. “Animals, coyotes, rattlesnakes; they’ve all come out in droves. It’s dry and unusually warm.”
Signs of drought are everywhere here, from shrinking lakes to the deadly color of trees and earth. Jansen decided to pull out his grass and put dry plants on it.
She is not alone. The mega-drought affecting the American West has broken records, with no tangible relief in sight. This forces cities to crack down on lawn watering and pay residents to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant plants.
The state’s largest district, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, pays $2 per square foot of grass pulled. Water District client cities and agencies can add more.
Water District Senior Resource Specialist Bill McDonnell envisions a future where a residential lawn is what he calls “abnormal” in Southern California. McDonnell estimates that 70% of water use in his district is for outdoor, lawn-led irrigation.
“Each of your sprinkler heads is like a shower,” he said. “You could have 15 or 20 sprinklers in your front yard. That’s 15 or 20 showers. That’s why we focus on the outdoors (for water conservation).”
The Metropolitan Water District told CNN that the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 requests.
Authorities are already taking steps to reduce water deliveries
And there are growing fears that the current scarcity system will not be enough to save the river from a historic drought due to climate change. Colorado River stakeholders, including Southern California, are currently negotiating drastic cuts that could reduce water deliveries by 25%.
The horrific drought has led Larry Romanoff to fight climate change by tearing up his grass and replacing it with cacti and decorative rocks. Romanoff will collect $10,500, or $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home.
“No matter how much water I put on my lawn, I always had nasty brown spots,” Romanoff recounted. It replaced approximately 1,700 square feet of grass.
The Coachella Valley Water District and its client, the City of Rancho Mirage, each pay Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn pulled.
“Here’s a chance to get rid of the lawn, save money and help the state.”
Several state agencies told CNN they believe a discount of $6 per square was the highest in California, possibly even a record high.
Moving activity at Rancho Mirage exploded in May when the city council voted to fund $500,000 in grass removal rebates from its treasury.
“The sod removal program was so popular that all of the rebate money was claimed almost immediately,” Councilman Steve Downs said. Downs noted that Rancho Mirage managers voted to fund an additional $1.5 million in rebates, bringing the grass removal payout windfall to $2 million.
Richard Baker of Rancho Mirage called his decision to trade weed for cash at $6 per square foot “obvious.”
“It was pretty surprising that they got that high,” Baker said with a jubilant laugh. Water agencies will pay Baker just over $24,000 for more than 4,000 square feet of lawn removed. Baker replaced the grass, paying $42,000 for artificial turf and labor. He expects considerable savings with little need for watering and gardeners.
The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN that nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California offer some kind of rebate on turf removal, both residential and commercial.
Refunds require applications and following each district’s rules on what types of trees, plants, mulch, rocks and the like are acceptable alternatives.
The Metropolitan Water District of the Los Angeles area does not allow artificial turf as a substitute for lawn.
Back in Thousand Oaks, Brian Godley and his Picture Build landscaping team ripped out more than 3,000 square feet of Doreen Jansen’s grassy park and replaced it with deer grass, fountain grass dwarf, lemongrass, as well as trees, bushes and flowers.
Many of the new Water District rules for grass replacement in California also require homeowners to add rain barrels and configure the yard to catch and hold rainwater.
“You have to capture natural water, so it doesn’t go into city sewers,” said Godley, who currently has 25 lawn removal projects underway.
Godley added that he also adds special types of soil additives that look like crystals, expanding to attract and hold water.
“I didn’t want to say goodbye to my beautiful lawn, it’s like a park,” Jansen lamented. “But I realized weed wouldn’t do it.”