California Drought: Does Removing Your Lawn Really Save Water?

Almost any garden style can work, from Japanese to a modified English cottage garden. You can have a beautiful garden that increases the value of your home and saves you money on water, and helps all of us in California.
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In the last year, cities in Southern California have increased the rebate amounts to remove turf significantly. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power rebates increased by 25 percent in November to $3.75 a square foot .* My landscaping business has been removing lawns and putting in low water plantings for several years now, and we have seen the interest in turf removal increase as the rebate amounts go up and water costs increase. For those folks that haven't been sure or who might be confused about what is involved, here is an overview of the process through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. You should check with your water agency for specifics, and the regulations do change as do the rebate amounts.

Why lawns have been singled out.
Turf typically requires more water to keep it green than many other types of plants. But the main reason why lawns use more water is the irrigation system that is used to irrigate it. The typical system uses pop up spray heads that send water up into the air and depend on most of it falling onto the ground and hopefully soaking into the soil so the roots can take it up. If it is windy or if the arc of the spray is too high, most of the water may spray on the sidewalk, street or driveway and not where you want it to go. Water will also get lost to evaporation. A typical pop up spray head can put out four gallons per minute. If you multiply that times the number of heads you have in your lawn, that can add up very quickly.

Does my lawn qualify?
It used to be that if you had dead grass, then you could not get the rebate. This was changed so that as long as you have turf -- dead or alive -- you qualify for the rebate. Dirt does not qualify.

What you put in to replace the lawn.
The turf rebate restrictions in Los Angeles are fairly simple: You have to put in enough plantings so that at maturity, roughly 40 percent of the area will be filled with plants. There are many plants you can use in order to get the rebate. Many folks think they have to put in California native plants. This is not true, there are many drought-tolerant plants from South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean that work very well in our climate. Bougainvillea, Agapantha and Camellia are all plants that grow very well in Los Angeles, but are not California natives.

You can put in permeable hardscape and mulch. Permeable hardscape means walkways, and seating areas where water can penetrate. So bricks can work if set in sand, flagstone in sand, gravel, and decomposed granite are other examples. These elements really help to make the design more attractive.

Your irrigation system must be changed to a drip system or you can water by hand. No overhead sprays are allowed. A drip system is usually just attached to your old irrigation system and the spray heads are removed. There is some valve work involved typically because of the water pressure issues relating to the drip systems.

The parkway is typically the area between the curb and the sidewalk. This is city property, even if you are responsible for taking care of it. If you don't have a sidewalk, then you need to check to see how far the city property goes back -- but usually about 11 feet from the curb. This area requires that certain turf substitute plants be installed if you don't want to pay for a permit. Anything else including rock or decomposed granite will require a permit, at least in the city of Los Angeles.

Lawns as paths.
An idea that we have used is to cut down the size of the lawn so that the lawn becomes the path you walk on through the garden. This is appealing for many folks who don't want to get rid of their lawns entirely, and you still reduce the amount of water you will use significantly.

The pros and cons.
There are several pros in replacing your lawn with low water-need plants. Your water use will decrease significantly, which will translate into money saved. Your new garden will have more birds, butterflies and bees. Chances are you will use less fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The drip irrigation system will get water where the plants need it, so less chance of water wasted.

The cons are that you will have to weed for a while more often than you used to. Over time, the weeding does decrease. If you have children, you may want an area of lawn. If you feel that you do need this, my suggestion would be to cut down on the lawn where you can. Every section of turf you take out will save you money.

Overview of the process.
All of the paperwork is done online now. You have to take before and after photos, and you will need to submit the square footage before and after. There are no drawings needed. Your water bill is submitted. A sketch of the parkway may be needed, but it goes directly to the water agency and not to the Bureau of Street Services as it once did, so this is a much easier process than it once was. Your rebate check won't be issued until your project is approved after completion. In order to get approved, you must follow the guidelines. They do look at your photos very carefully and enlarge areas to make sure there are no overhead sprays. In some cases, they will come out to look at the project in person. One area you should make sure you don't neglect is the weeding. If the turf comes back in any significant way before you get approved because grass and or weeds sprout, your rebate may be denied.

How much water can you save?
You can easily calculate how much water you are using by using a bucket to catch the water at one sprinkler head. It is very common for a sprinkler head to use four gallons per minute or more. Once you know how many gallons per minute (GPM) each head is using you can calculate how much water you are using based on how long you are running each head. For example: If you have a zone (this is an area on your irrigation system that is controlled by one valve), that has 10 heads on it and each head is putting out four gallons per minute, you have 40 gallons of water coming out per minute for that zone. If you run that zone for eight minutes, that is 320 gallons of water that is being used to water just that one section of lawn.

A drip system uses much less water and instead of gallons per minute, gallons per hour are used to measure water use. Most drip emitters use one to two gallons per hour. As an example: Taking that same area that has grass and replacing it with a mix of permeable hardscape, plants and mulch will reduce your water usage significantly. If you plant 20 one-gallon plants that each have a drip emitter using two gallons per hour, and running that system for 30 minutes (or one gallon of water will be used during that time per plant) you will use a total of 20 gallons of water. That is a huge savings in water -- 20 gallons used where you used 320 gallons before.

This is just one example, and it will depend on how your system is designed. But I think that you can see that switching to a drip system will save a significant amount of water.

There won't be a need for weekly mowing any longer, but there will be weeding to do. I always make sure folks realize that the grass and weeds will try to come back. It really is unavoidable. Just look at any parking lot that has been abandoned for a few months and you will see weeds coming up between cracks in the asphalt. The plants will require some pruning and deadheading. The drip system will require regular checking. Drip heads can get clogged or pop off. So should run them twice a month or if you see a plant that looks wilted.

No excuses.
Really there aren't many excuses I can think of for keeping all of your lawn. Take out at least some of your lawn. The parkway is a good place if nothing else. Don't feel that you are limited by using only cacti and brown shrubby plants. Almost any garden style can work, from Japanese to a modified English cottage garden. You can have a beautiful garden that increases the value of your home and saves you money on water, and helps all of us in California.

* $3.75 for up to 1500 square feet, $2 for amounts above that.

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