You Can Rip Out Your SoCal Lawn For Money Again — Now Without Landscaping Abominations

A trio of veggie planting boxes is terraced into the slope of this Pasadena front yard turf replacement project. When the weather cools, it will host an assortment of lettuce, chard, carrots and other home-grown produce. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

ACROSS THE PLANET, HUNDREDS OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS — INCLUDING THIS ONE — ARE SPENDING A WEEK FOCUSING ON ALL THINGS CLIMATE CHANGE. THE GLOBAL COLLABORATION IS CALLED COVERING CLIMATE NOW, AND THIS STORY IS PART OF IT. YOU ARE ALSO PART OF IT. USE THE FORM BELOW TO TELL US WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND, OR IF THERE'S SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW.


The water-saving rebate program that led thousands of Angelenos to rip out their lawns was wildly popular.

But it left behind front yard landscaping abominations like white gravel, bare dirt and artificial neon green turf.

As the drought ended, so did the program. Now, though, with lessons learned, the program is back, and it's different.

The Metropolitan Water District's new rebate program is still about removing grass, but it has a tighter focus on improving the looks and sustainability of our collective front yards. And it pays $2 for every square foot of lawn you remove, even more in some areas where local water agencies supplement the rebate.

I missed out on the Metropolitan Water District's old turf removal program during the drought years of 2014-15, mostly because I didn't have much of a lawn to rip out.

Back then, a dormant or dead lawn was a mark of civic pride, like having a Victory Garden to curb the demand on the public food supply during World War II — it was a self-sacrificing showcase for how much we cared about saving water.

It also provided great cover for lazy landscapers like me. I let my lawn go brown long before we actually had a drought. Yes, I was THAT neighbor, the one with the unsightly, weedy, thin brown lawn.

But now my lawn is green-ish — about half grass and half weeds — and I've decided it's time to rip it out.

It took an entire roll-off container to haul away 1800 square feet of grass and soil before installation of drought-friendly landscaping. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE OLD MWD REBATE PROGRAM?

The program started in 2008, paying a scant 30 cents per square foot. It went up to $1 per square foot in 2011, and doubled to $2 a square foot in 2014, as the drought became more dire.

Back then, MWD didn't much care what replaced all those lawns, it was just desperate to get Southern Californians to use less water. Some areas, like Los Angeles, added another $1 to $1.75 on top of the MWD rebate, so some landowners could get as much as $3.75 a square foot.

The program exhausted its funds in mid-2015, sooner than expected, and was not renewed in 2016.

In all, Metropolitan Water District spent $350 million giving rebates to anybody who was willing to tear out their grass. Owners of 46,000 parcels took the offer and tore out nearly six square miles of lawn.

WHAT REPLACED SIX SQUARE MILES OF GONE LAWN?

The white gravel. The bare dirt. The cacti. The yards full of wood chips studded with maybe four oddly spaced drought-tolerant plants. And worst of the worst, the fakey fake bright green artificial turf.

This fake grass lawn has real weeds growing up through the seams. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

In my opinion, and I know people will argue with me, many of the rebate-transformed front yards were pretty, as in pretty awful.

For me, brown will never be the new green. Gravel does not rock. I didn't want an elegant desertscape. Or cacti or succulents. Or artificial turf. And I don't want to contribute to the urban heat island effect.

There were also a few companies that turned turf removal into something of a green gold rush. This is Bloomberg's take from 2016 on the "Turf Terminators Grass War," where a few companies did a big portion of the rebate-paid work and left so many SoCal yards SoUgly.

Many well-meaning households adopted the idea of installing California native plants. They looked sweet when they were tiny, nestled in their beds of fresh brown mulch, but even these drought-tolerant plants are not set-it-and-forget-it. They need work to maintain. I can walk up and down my local sidewalks and see scads of overgrown sage and salvia plants obscuring the fronts of houses.

WHAT'S REPLACING THE OLD REBATE PROGRAM?

MWD's new turf program incorporates lessons learned from the ugly yards of yesteryear. It has a tighter focus on what replaces the grass. That means more rules, but perhaps also nicer front yards once the grass is gone.

You'll need a water retention structure like roof gutters draining to a rain barrel, or a rocky swale (like a dry creek bed dug through your yard) to collect rainwater and keep it on your property. Those things can add cost to your project.

The new rules bar bare dirt (although decomposed granite is an acceptable surface because it's organic), fake grass, gravel or grass-like replacement plants. Any hardscape within the turf replacement area, like walkways, must be permeable so water can soak through it or the square-footage doesn't count toward the rebate.

Another new rule — you also have to install at least three plants per 100 square feet of grass you remove. Any bare dirt surfaces have to have a substantial cover of mulch, about three inches deep.

And those sprinklers that throw lots of water into the air where it can evaporate? Those are not allowed. Drip irrigation or hand watering is the way to go.

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT GETTING A TURF REPLACEMENT REBATE?

First, reserve your place in the rebate line at www.bewaterwise.com. You can start an application and save it, coming back later to add in new information and track your rebate. When the program's $50 million for this year is all claimed, the line closes.

It helps if you have some basic information at hand when you go to the site.

For starters, MWD wants to know how big your lot is and how many square feet of turf you intend to remove. So you might have to do some measuring.

I didn't know so I looked up my house on the county assessor's parcel map search website or you can use a commercial website like Realtor.com. It showed my parcel was 51 feet wide and 150 feet deep, so 7,650 square feet.

Then it wanted to know what places turf was coming out. For me, just the front yard and parkway, about 1800 square feet.

Next is the fun part — deciding what to plant after the grass is kaput.

A LANDSCAPE THAT'S CLIMATE-FRIENDLY

For advice I went to visit climate scientist Peter Kalmus in his Altadena yard. He wrote "Being The Change: Live Well And Spark A Climate Revolution."

In the book Kalmus advocates behaviors regular people can take to reduce the climate-damaging greenhouse gases they produce, like driving and flying less and also tearing out their grass lawns.

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus's front yard has artichokes and many other edible plants. He's holding an egg from one of his backyard chickens. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

I wanted to know what he thought would be best for the earth's climate health. And also get a glimpse of what he's done to his yard.

"I kind of prefer sort of like a wild aesthetic so things get a little wild for me," he told me as he showed me around. His yard is a shaggy jumble of plants, a mix of California natives and fruits and veggies.

"There's fennel here. We like fennel — that smells great. There's some kind of kale that's like a few years old," he said grabbing a selection of greens from the front yard. In his side yard, he plucks a pomelo — kind of a grapefruit hybrid — and peels it on the spot.

Artichokes, celery, pomegranates, nectarines. There's more out back, a massive old avocado tree and some nice egg-laying chickens in a coop behind the ancient small wood garage.

He wants people to grow native California drought-tolerant plants and food instead of grass, not just because it saves water but because it also helps reduce the fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change.

For example, landscapers don't need to drive their gas-burning trucks to his house and use gas-powered emission-spewing leaf blowers, and then cart away the cuttings to a landfill.

And growing diverse kinds of plants attracts lots of different insects and other critters in the way that a labor-intensive lawn — a monoculture — does not.

"A lot of forests have been cut down and there's not a lot of habitat left. So one little thing you can do on your little piece of land is to create some habitat," he said.

Okay, so I'm doing the right thing by taking out my lawn. But Kalmus' jungle really isn't my style. But I'm also not persuaded that MWD's vision of a front yard is what I want in my own yard. Maybe they have something they can suggest?

MWD'S MODEL TURF REPLACEMENT

I explained all this to Bill McDonnell, water efficiency manager at the Metropolitan Water District.

He oversees the MWD rebate program and invited me to a front yard in North Hills to show me how nice a yard can be — under the new rules — when the grass comes out.

Bill McDonnell, MWD water efficiency manager, oversees the agency's turf replacement program, which covered part of the cost of this North Hills front yard makeover from a water-thirsty lawn to a drought-friendly landscape. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

This yard has a variety of small scale, drought-friendly or California native plants. They put out a variety of small colorful blooms that have attracted bees and butterflies.

"In this particular garden they have DG, decomposed granite, as a walkway, but you can also see that they have a dry riverbed," McDonnell said.

That's the newly required water retention feature. It's a shallow ditch lined with rocks to soak in rainfall.

This yard is pretty, but I wasn't enthusiastic about a landscaped rocky swale planted with native plants across my front yard. It seems like too much of a tripping hazard, and a lot of of those types of front yards end up looking messy and overgrown.

I also wanted to really USE my front yard. Maybe I could grow food like Peter Kalmus — but in a more controlled way?

FRONT YARD VEGGIES, IF YOU DARE

I called Daniel Allen, CEO of Farmscape, an urban farming company. He suggested I plant raised boxes for food crops which sounded great. But I'm in an older neighborhood where a towering oak tree blocks most of the sun. How would that work?

"So the first thing we're gonna do — you know, besides measuring it and getting the dimensions of a space — is measure where you have different levels of sunlight," Allen said.

He used a virtual reality app called Sun Seeker to figure out what parts of my yard could host the raised boxes for food crops.

He came up with a plan. The sunny areas along the south end of my front yard could be used for the raised boxes while the giant oak in the parkway could cast nice shade for an outdoor workspace on what used to be my front lawn.

Since I also wanted the daily care to be low-maintenance, he suggested putting everything on automatic drip watering lines.

The side yard of this Pasadena front yard has a planting box with metal cables on a trellis to support climbing plants like beans and peas. A rain barrel will collect water from the gutter on the roof, helping the parcel retain more storm runoff and reducing what gets wasted into storm drains. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

Allen said he likes the changes in the new version of the MWD rebate program because it focuses as much on the replacement plants as tearing out grass.

"It makes our cities better and more livable, and I'm glad the emphasis isn't just on less water but it's on using water thoughtfully," Allen said.

I submitted our plan to the MWD along with a water bill and photos of the yard. And then I waited. It took about a month for MWD to approve the work, which got underway in mid-summer.

AT LONG LAST, THE VEGGIES AND FLOWERS ARE GROWING

Finally, my lawn is gone. Five raised planting boxes are installed, I've got a picnic table on the permeable brick patio, and I even have an old newspaper vending box to give away books.

A permeable brick deck holds repurposed wine barrels holding blueberry plants and a picnic table in this front yard turf replacement project in Pasadena. An old newspaper vending box holds books donated for neighbors to take. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

And now that the weather has cooled, I've planted my first round of fall veggies — lettuce, kale, carrots, celery, beans, basil and lots of herbs.

Now, I'm just waiting for my rebate check.