Los Angeles Homeowners Are Removing Lawns During Drought
AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — Erin Brockovich made a name for himself decades ago as an environmental activist exposing the misconduct of contaminated drinking water companies.
So she felt a little defensive when a… television reporter asked how her name ended up on a list of water guzzlers during a terrible drought in California. At one point last year, she received a $1,700 bill for two months of water and fines.
Mrs. Brockovich finally decided she needed to get rid of her lawn, a central portion of the backyard oasis she’d built over twenty years in Agoura Hills, a suburb of large homes with immaculate gardens about 40 miles northwest of downtown. from Los Angeles. She replaced 3,100 square meters of grass with high-tech artificial grass.
“This is not a fire drill and we should all participate,” she said. “We must overcome the guilt and sadness of it.”
The lawn has been one of Southern California’s most enduring middle-class fantasies for nearly a century: a single-family home with a manicured emerald yard that always remains lush—even in the dead of summer, when much of the native population of the region’s vegetation is golden brown.
But as climate change exposes the limits of water supplies, homeowners and water officials say the end of the thirsty lawn may finally be here.
Where residents once looked suspiciously at a garden that resembled a desert diorama, there are now parades of gravel beds dotted with cacti, native botanical gardens and artificial turf. The change reflects a different kind of peer pressure from neighbors, bolstered by tough new water restrictions that came into effect in June.
For most of the past year, 300 applicants a month were looking discounts that paid homeowners to barter grass, according to Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which distributes water to utilities serving 19 million people. In May the number rose to 870. In June there were almost 1,400.
Many don’t even need monetary incentives. A recent survey by the water agency found that for every 100 homeowners who took advantage of discounts, another 132 nearby also switched.
Read more about extreme weather
In Woodland Hills, a Los Angeles neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley where temperatures are routinely higher than along the coast, Alex Hoffmaster and Camilla Jessen recently bought a ranch house with a dead lawn. Instead of reviving it, they decided to install decomposed granite and native plants, inspired by a family across the street.
“Having a lawn here in the Valley is completely nonsensical,” said Ms. Jessen, 45, as she maneuvered her 5-month-old son Scout into a patch of shade on a recent 100-degree afternoon.
A few blocks away, Jerry Landsdowne, 71, surveyed the small lawn in front of the house he bought in 1997. The spots started to look beige and dry.
“The care I used to show to the lawn,” he said, shaking his head. He fondly recalled mowing the lawn for ten years for an elderly neighbor, one of the community’s few surviving World War II veterans. The refund consisted of a beer in the shade of a mulberry tree.
But Mr Landsdowne said he has recently considered replacing his grass as the drought continues.
Nearby, Hollywood has long exported a vision of the American dream, including a tidy house with a meticulously manicured lawn. (Image “The Brady Bunch” kids jumping out the sliding door of their house – modeled after a real one in the San Fernando Valley – and on a perennial green backyard.)
Despite that image, the region has a patchwork of communities with different landscape conventions. Many Los Angeles neighborhoods have yards that are considered small by people in, say, the Midwest, and dirt or concrete lots are hardly uncommon.
Yet there is often real grass in affluent neighborhoods.
In Hancock Park, a historic enclave in downtown Los Angeles, Bill Newby, 65, said rolling lawns were essential to his community’s identity.
“We see people coming into this neighborhood all the time, jogging through,” he said. “Halloween is lovely here.”
While mr. Newby said he was in the process of monitoring the city’s watering restrictions – two allotted days per week — he found them frustrating.
“I don’t think watering lawns a few days a week is a big use of water, compared to farming and golf courses,” he said. “I scratch my head a little and say, ‘We all have to do our part. Is this an easy target, though?’”
Experts say getting rid of lawns alone won’t solve the state’s water problem. And there are persistent debates about who should bear the more painful cuts: residents of California’s cities, where per capita water use has steadily declined, or burpwho say they grow food for the nation.
The rise of Southern California was based on easy access to water. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which opened in 1913diverted millions of gallons from the Owens River Valley over 200 miles to what would quickly become the nation’s second most populous city—an engineering triumph that defied nature.
Los Angeles’ growth in the following decades has coincided with a thriving middle class whose aspirations for suburban living can be traced back to rural England. There, lawns were an early means of displaying conspicuous wealth among the landed gentry, said Christopher Sellers, a history professor at Stony Brook University who has written about lawns in the United States.
American gardeners developed sturdier grass hybrids designed to survive in warmer, drier climates, though they still needed regular watering. And the lawn made its way west to California, where it evolved into what Mr. Sellers described as “the cultural norm, the expectation.”
The sprawling region of Los Angeles was built on the idea that anyone could own a piece of land with a lawn and a driveway. Still, you only need to glimpse nearby wildlife areas to see what plants would otherwise thrive here.
One recent sweltering afternoon, Evan Meyer pulled up a winding dirt track in Sun Valley, another Los Angeles neighborhood, and stopped on a flat hilltop to look at an expansive view. He leads the Theodore Payne Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs an increasingly popular native plant nursery.
In the foreground, Mr. Meyer pointed to the mottled khaki and rust-colored plain of the Verdugo Mountains. In the background loomed the Santa Monica Mountains, covered in coastal sage bushes.
“And then we see the urban environment of the San Fernando Valley,” he said, pointing to the area in between: dense, varied green textures, punctuated by the gray-white of stucco and ribbons of asphalt. Almost none of the plants, he said, “were selected for any reason other than ‘Which is easiest or what’s prettiest?'”
In recent decades, lawn supremacy has endured cycles of drought and rain. However, due to climate change, droughts have become more frequent and intense.
“The new drought is a hot drought,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “We need to be ready to get acute soon.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom pleaded with residents last year to voluntarily cut spending. But water use in some parts of the state actually increased, and Mr. Newsom said this year he would impose mandatory restrictions if water agencies couldn’t get people to save. “This is a wake-up call,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, in April as he outlined new water restrictions. According to the district, Southern California water agencies have met and exceeded conservation goals since the rules went into effect. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers used 11 percent less water last month than in July 2021.
A recent study by PPIC found that 51 percent of Los Angeles residents said they and their families had done a lot to reduce water consumption, the highest figure in the state. Still, 70 percent of Los Angeles residents said the people there still weren’t doing enough.
Across the region, landscapers specializing in drought-tolerant plants and artificial turf say they are struggling to keep up with demand. “I feel like an analogy is that it’s Covid and we’re the only ones with the masks,” said Mitchell Katz, the owner of the Camarillo-based Turf Exchange, which has been replacing grass with artificial turf for nearly a decade.
Ms. Brockovich was one of the clients of Mr. Katz, a complete convert to artificial grass, which she said doesn’t look and feel like older versions of fake grass, with no disturbing colors.
While such sod eliminates the need for watering, it must be replaced approximately every 20 years, creating plastic waste. That environmental cost disqualified it from the MWD discount program.
In the nursery of the Theodore Payne Foundation, families sniffed through the rows of narrow-leaved milkweed and sage, spicy and earthy scents that hung heavy in the hot air.
Lorna Estrada, 50, and her daughter, Sienna Kochakji, 13, had come from the Lake Balboa neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley to do some “window shopping,” as Ms. Estrada put it. Ms Estrada, a fifth-grade teacher, said she taught her students about drought and climate change. She said she wanted to do an outdoor project with Sienna.
So, after considering the idea for 15 years, she said, “We’re finally letting go of our lawn.”
Mr Meyer said he hoped the San Fernando Valley region would one day resemble the natural landscapes that so many Angelenos enjoy hiking. He added that the drought is catalyzing the transition.
“A lawn is basically a large, sterile green carpet that uses a lot of water to maintain,” he said. “We advocate a future where our urban spaces blend seamlessly into their natural environment.”