Some Western cities offer residents “cash for grass” to reduce irrigation

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study in 2016 showed that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in America. There are over 40 million grassy acres in the continental U.S., and they take a lot of water to thrive. But in the West, where rainfall is less plentiful, many water providers have been offering rebates to residents willing to tear out turf and replace it with drought tolerant plants. The programs are working and thousands of gallons of water are being saved. So why are two major cities punting on the idea? 

DENVER, Colo. — It’s hard to avoid getting swept up in Wendy Inouye’s enthusiasm when she talks about her garden.

“I love it!” she gushes. “I have so much joy from my garden. Every time I come out I always pause and look at it. You know that saying, take time to smell the roses? I literally do that every single day I come and go from my home.”

Inouye’s front yard at her home in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, is full of “xeric” plants—shrubs and groundcovers adapted to survive in dry climates.

Inouye took out her lawn last summer and replaced it with a Colorado-friendly landscape, including red rock penstemon, hopflower oregano, and a plant called red-birds-in-a-tree. She didn’t want to waste any more water and said the grass in her front yard had no function. It was in full sun and its water needs were astronomical. By taking out 750 square feet of turf and replacing it with a variety of water-saving plants surrounded by rocks and mulch, she and her husband have reduced their water usage from 413 gallons a day to 200.

Pointing to a larger area Inouye said, “This was just one big flat piece of grass that was full of weeds.” She was tired of fighting nature, using pesticides and herbicides. Now she says, she has fun with all her beautiful flowering plants.

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Ditching the “Green Carpet”

It was a lot of work for Inouye to transform her landscape even though she hired contractors to assist with turf removal and changes to her irrigation system. But she got support for her decision from the City of Thornton through a turf removal rebate program that paid her $1.00 for every square foot of turf she took out.

Water conservation and efficiency are important to every utility across the country, and especially in the West where “aridification” is occurring. That’s the term being used in the Colorado River Basin to describe the region’s transition to a water scarce environment due to climate change—a condition that will result in a shrinking supplies.

Water utilities have various strategies to get customers to lower usage. Many offer rebates for installing low-flow toilets and efficient showerheads in older homes to reduce indoor use. With outdoor use, water providers can use “cash-for-grass” incentives as Thornton did for Wendy Inouye. They can also offer free mulch, rebates for efficient irrigation systems, and audits of outside water use.

Recently the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a non-profit dedicated to efficient and sustainable use of water, produced an assessment concluding that utility-sponsored programs to promote sustainable landscapes save water. Tom Chestnutt, the lead author of AWE’s study, said that turf removal programs have been very successful, and they hit that tipping point causing customers to do something different with their front yards.

The idea of a “green carpet”—lots of grass in front of homes, buildings, and sometimes, even medians—has been described as an aesthetic (inappropriately, many say) imported from the East. In the West, where lawns require irrigation, some water providers see them as out of sync with a western lifestyle.

“Grass? That’s Weird!”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC) is the largest water supply district in the United States, serving 19 million customers.

Bill McDonnell, the conservation manager for MWDSC, said that they started asking why do people realistically need to have a 1,500 square-foot rectangle of grass in their front yard that they’re never using? Mowing, fertilizing, adding waste, McDonnell said, “There’s a lot going on there to have a green patch.”

So they started to pay people to take out their lawns.

MWDSC has the largest cash-for-grass program in the country, and its board recently renewed the program increasing the rebate to $2.00 per square foot removed—even though there’s not a current drought emergency.

McDonnell said that when they began turf replacement rebates people went crazy. “People were like, ‘I want this, I don’t want to be watering my lawn; I want a smaller water bill.'”

In Southern California, people irrigate their yards 12 months of the year, and on average, 50 to 60 percent of a home’s use of water is outside. Farther east in the district where it can get really hot, a water bill could easily be based on as much as 70 percent for outdoor use.

In an email, Rebecca Kimitch, who works with McDonnell at MWDSC, said they estimate the water savings from turf removal to be 44 gallons of water annually for every square foot of grass taken out.

McDonnell tells his children that someday they’ll be walking down the street with their kids who will point to a yard with grass and say, “That’s weird.” The whole idea, he says, is to flip it so that the person with grass will be the one who is different.

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Enough Lawn to Wrap Nearly Around the Globe

Southern California is not alone in incentivizing customers to transform their landscapes. Doug Bennett, Conservation Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), agrees with McDonnell that having lots of grass serves no functional purpose. The Las Vegas area is the driest metropolitan area in North America, so conservation is always forefront.

SNWA has been running a turf replacement rebate program nearly 20 years and has saved almost 13 billion gallons a year. Bennett said, “There is no room in this city for ‘keep off the grass’ signs,” meaning all grass must be used, not there solely for ornamental or aesthetic purposes.

When asked if SNWA’s program had been successful, Bennett said, “Absolutely. We’re at about 190,000,000 square feet” of turf removed. To illustrate this he said, “That’s enough sod, 18 inches wide to go 95 percent of the way around the world.” But he added that they still have a long way to go having addressed only about half of the non-functional turf in the area.

Turf Removal Rebates—A “Gimmick”?

Given that two of the largest water providers in the drying Southwest region are deploying “cash-for-grass” programs, one might assume that the idea took off in other major cities. And it has—except in two cases—Denver, Colorado, and Phoenix, Arizona.

Phoenix, Arizona, is the country’s fifth largest city, and its water department serves about 1.5 million people. The city doesn’t offer a turf replacement rebate, and Cynthia Campbell, the Water Resource Management Advisor for Phoenix said that even without one, there has been a 30 percent decline in water use overall since about 1980.

Campbell said that in the late 1970s about 80 percent of single-family homes had a majority of their landscaping in turf, but today that number has dropped to about 14 percent.

Even with the decline in turf use, Phoenix homeowners are still using about 60 percent of their water outside their homes. However, Campbell views some conservation rebates as reactive to a special event like the drought in California. Those programs can “take on a gimmick kind of idea,” she said, “unless they can be sustainable for the long haul.” Instead, she thinks that Phoenix is better off trying to educate the public about how to use water in a desert, instead of saying that this year they’re going to pay residents to rip out their grass.

Campbell also noted that the pricing in Phoenix may discourage grass watering, especially during the summer months. A homeowner who wants to water then would be a heavier user and would pay more for it.

But many cities surrounding Phoenix—Glendale, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, Peoria, and Tempe—offer turf replacement rebates.

Glendale, Arizona, is a city of about 240,000. Joanne Toms, its Environmental Program Manager, said they have had a rebate program since 1986. She roughly estimates that an acre of turf converted to desert landscaping saves about a million gallons. Toms said that she would hate to see the rebate program dropped because it shows the city’s leadership and forward-thinking that began in the 1980s. She sees the rebates as an incentive to homeowners who may be on the fence about whether to convert.

Lawns As a “Dispersed Version of a Reservoir”

In comparison to cities in the Southwest, Denver has a semi-arid climate—it gets more precipitation in the spring and summer and has winters—meaning people don’t have to water year-round to maintain a landscape.

A cash-for-grass program would not result in nearly as much water savings as in drier regions. Still, such an incentive could save water. However, Denver Water, the largest provider in Colorado, has decided it’s not a wise use of customers’ money.

Ditch in Time

Jeff Tejral, the manager of water efficiency for Denver Water, says there has already been a lot of change in customers’ landscapes without a turf replacement rebate program. Similar to the city of Phoenix, Tejral attributes the switch to a public education program that Denver Water started in the 1980s.

In addition, Tejral says that Denver Water did an analysis of a cash-for-grass rebate in 2016 and it did not make sense to start one. Tejral’s group calculated the water savings and the cost of the rebates to be $75,000 dollars per acre foot of water conserved, which the agency concluded was not a wise use of its ratepayers’ funds. He said that it would make sense to spend that amount, if they were in dire straits, and a turf rebate were the last option available.

However, there may be another reason that Denver Water doesn’t have a turf removal program—lawns might be a safety net where use could be restricted in extreme drought conditions. At those times of severe need, Denver Water could drastically cut back outdoor usage which would be tolerated more easily than restricting use inside homes. Cutting back lawn watering is much easier to get customers to accept than limiting their shower times or their clothes washings.

This idea was expressed by Colorado University historian Patricia Nelson Limerick in the book she wrote about Denver Water, Ditch in Time: The City, the West and Water. As Limerick writes, Denver water managers see lawns offering a service that is far from evident to most observers. Lawns are devices that receive water that would otherwise bypass Denver unused. She adds that lawns offer a cushion if severe drought should arise, and without that cushion demand would be hardened. “Take out the lawns and water would be directed only to needs that would not be susceptible to restriction.” Limerick writes that to the late Chips Barry, former manager of the Denver Water Department, lawns looked a lot like a dispersed version of a reservoir, holding water that could, in urgent circumstances, be shifted to respond to genuine need.

In response, Tejral said that they are shifting away from viewing turf the way Barry did. He insists there are other benefits to having lawns and landscapes in general, and it’s important to manage landscapes for what is best in the long term for a lot of different purposes, which could include aesthetic. He said that Chips Barry was reflecting on where Denver was, but as it matures as a city and integrates with others, people are going to have to learn the true function of landscapes, which is complicated.

Similar to the municipalities surrounding Phoenix, Front Range municipalities near Denver including Thornton, Centennial Water and Sanitation District (Highlands Ranch), Fort Collins, and Aurora all have rebates for removing grass.

One might think that Tejral would be a big advocate for such an incentive program. Before he worked at Denver Water, Tejral worked at Aurora Water, the water provider for the city of Aurora, just to the east of Denver, and he helped start that utility’s turf rebate program. But, he said, while the two cities are adjacent, Aurora started in a different place than Denver, and the former was more turf-centric. In contrast to Denver, not a lot of people in Aurora were modeling the change to either xeric or more water-efficient landscapes. That led Aurora to start a turf rebate program, in Tejral’s words, “to catch up to what its bigger neighbor Denver had been doing for some time.”

“Smarter Than…Dams, Reservoirs, and Pipelines”

Ten years ago, Drew Beckwith was with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental organization. At that time he told the Boulder Daily Camera, when talking about Denver Water’s plans to expand its water supply in nearby Gross Reservoir, the agency had done a great job with conservation, but what it lacked is what others offer: cash-for-grass incentives.

Beckwith recently moved into the public sector and is now the Water Resources Specialist with another Denver neighbor, the City of Westminster. That municipality plans to offer turf replacement rebates next summer. He said 50 percent of Westminster’s drinking water supplies go to outdoor use, and just like other cities, the water used on grass and plants is highly treated to drinking quality standards, not a cheap process.

According to Beckwith, conservation through cash-for-grass and other incentives, is cheaper, faster, and smarter than building structural projects like dams, reservoirs, and pipelines. He noted there is a cultural shift going on along Colorado’s Front Range moving toward more “Colorado-friendly” landscapes, and Westminster wants to spur that shift.

Meanwhile, back in Thornton, Colorado, Wendy Inouye admires her xeriscape where grass used to be. She said that the rebate she got covered only about a tenth of her conversion expenses. But transforming her landscape gave her the sense that she is doing something for the planet, the community, and herself. And, she added, the rebate made her feel like the city is on the same mission as she is. 

This story originally appeared on H2ORadio.org and is republished here by permission.