Letting Go Of Our Love Of Lawns
Lynetta McElroy stands outside her home on a tree-lined street in the south L.A. neighborhood of Leimert Park, where she’s lived since the 1980s.
“Leimert Park was known for its beautiful lawns,” McElroy said. “No fences, and you could go to one corner and you could see just about to the next corner. It gave a community feeling. I've always loved this area. And it took a while to get a home in this area, needless to say.”
Leimert Park has long been a center of Black Los Angeles — and a testament to the possibility of the American Dream.
The neighborhood was once only for white upper- and middle-class families. Racist property laws in the early 1900s barred Black, Mexican, Asian, Jewish and other marginalized communities from buying homes there.
But in 1948, the Supreme Court deemed those laws unconstitutional. Well-off Black families started moving in. It wasn’t a smooth transition. New residents faced vandalism and threats from their white neighbors.
There was a lot of pride. Everyone kept up their lawn and they had their beautiful flowers and it was such a pleasant place to see and be.
But by the time McElroy and her husband moved into their home in 1988, Leimert Park had become a haven for middle-class Black families.
“There was a lot of pride,” McElroy said. “Everyone kept up their lawn and they had their beautiful flowers and it was such a pleasant place to see and be.”
The lawn itself has long been a symbol of achieving that white-picket-fence dream of home ownership. For generations, that’s been the case for Americans across the country.
Where our love of lawns comes from
It goes back to colonial England, where a sprawling, perfectly manicured, purely aesthetic lawn was how the elite class signaled its wealth.
The U.S.’s founding fathers brought that tradition with them. George Washington, for example, modeled his home, Mount Vernon, after royal grounds in England and France.
Then came the Industrial Revolution. Americans flocked to growing cities, which soon became heavily polluted and crowded. Those who could afford it started moving to planned communities being built on the outskirts. With the need to grow one’s own food gone, lawns replaced small family farms and food gardens and became spaces for leisure and recreation. The dream of utopic suburbia was born — the lawn its preeminent symbol.
After World War II, the federal government offered low-cost mortgages to millions of veterans returning home. Suburbs with rows of tidy lawns spread across the country, even in dry Southern California, and became the icon of the American Dream.
But today, water isn’t as plentiful as it was once treated to be. Southern California’s primary water sources — Sierra Nevada snowpack and the Colorado River — are less reliable as the climate crisis causes increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather. Not only that, those sources have long been overused for development, agriculture and industry.
Where your water comes from depends on where you live (for example, if you live in north Orange County, most of your water is from an underground basin). But most Southland cities import a significant amount of their water from reservoirs fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt and the Colorado River.
L.A. currently pipes in about 90% of its water from northern California and east from the Colorado River. There are efforts in the works to recycle more water and capture more stormwater to lower that number.
About 40% of L.A.'s water comes from the eastern Sierra Nevada via the L.A. Aqueduct. Another 40% comes via the State Water Project, a 700-mile system of aqueducts, reservoirs and dams that brings water from Sierra Nevada snowmelt to southern California. About 70% of the State Water Project's average supply goes to cities, while the rest goes to agriculture.
The Colorado River is divvied up between seven U.S. states and Northern Mexico, with more than 70% of its water going to agriculture. California gets the biggest bucket, with most of that water going to farmland in Imperial and Riverside counties. The next biggest bucket goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people in cities across the Southland, including L.A.
As the climate crisis escalates, homeowners and governments alike are realizing that water-guzzling lawns no longer fit into our drier reality.
How much water do lawns really use?
While recent storms have been a big help for the ongoing drought, the fact is we’re set for a drier reality long-term. In cities, one of the last low-hanging fruits of water conservation is tearing out water-guzzling grass, including millions of square feet at homes, businesses and public agencies across the state, according to water researchers and managers.
Though it varies by region, about half of the water we use at home is used for outdoor landscaping. The non-profit water research group Pacific Institute estimates that 44% of all the water used in California cities, or 2.8 million acre-feet, is used outdoors for landscape irrigation, washing cars or sidewalks, and for filling pools and spas.
Their research finds the biggest potential urban water savings are at residences, particularly in southern California, where converting grass to less water-intensive alternatives could save more than a million acre-feet of water per year and converting lawns at businesses could save nearly a half-a-million acre-feet every year.
For comparison, California is legally entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water every year.
Where L.A.'s Water Goes
In L.A., an average of 30% to 40% of water used at single-family homes goes to outdoor landscaping, though that can fluctuate depending how big your yard is. About 70% of all of L.A.'s water goes to single-family homes, with the rest going to businesses, apartments and industries, according to LADWP.
LADWP has a program that audits the city's biggest water users — who pay more for their water as "Tier 4" users — said Terrence McCarthy, water manager with the agency. If those big water users are found to be using an "unreasonable" amount, McCarthy said, LADWP develops a water use plan that includes escalating financial penalties if not followed.
In a state water plan released last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom set the goal of ripping out 500 million square feet of decorative grass by 2030. And last May, the State Water Resources Control Board banned watering decorative lawns at businesses, industrial facilities and public agencies at least through June of this year. That move, if made permanent, could save the state as much as 400,000 acre-feet of water annually, according to non-profit water research group Pacific Institute.
An acre-foot is the amount it would take to fill an acre, about the size of a football field, a foot deep with water. For comparison, the entire city of Los Angeles uses about 500,000 acre-feet of water per year.
“If we knew a hundred years ago when this area was developing that the future was such that we need to transition to really living within our local means, you wouldn't have landscapes that look the way they do,” said Deven Upadhyay, the Chief Operating Officer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which provides water to more than 19 million Southern Californians, including Angelenos.
Since 2014, MWD’s lawn rebate program has led to more than 200 million square feet of grass being torn out and replaced with drought-tolerant plants across the Southland, Upadhyay said. The L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) rebate program has led to 52 million square feet of grass being torn out since 2010, according to the agency. They recently upped their rebate to $5 a square foot — the highest in the region.
Southern California cities are already doing a lot more with a lot less. The city of L.A. actually uses less water than it did in 1970, despite its population growing by more than a million people. That’s a result of conservation efforts that started back then, including increased education, rebates for installing water-efficient appliances, and making certain outdoor watering restrictions permanent, not just for drought years.
There have also been larger initiatives to reduce water use, such as building a separate pipe system to deliver non-drinkable recycled water to golf courses, cemeteries and industrial facilities. Griffith Park, for example, uses this kind of water.
The state has set a goal to tear out 500 million square feet of decorative grass by 2030. Already more than 250 million square feet has been torn out in the Southland since 2010. And it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. just removing a part of your lawn can save a lot of water (and money). Landscaping with native plants can also support local pollinators and wildlife.
LADWP recently upped its rebate to $5 per square foot of grass removed. Learn more about indoor and outdoor water saving rebates:
LADWP Lawn Replacement And Water-Efficient Appliance Rebates
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California also offers indoor and outdoor water-saving rebates for businesses and homes. Your local water agency is likely to have more as well.
Currently, about 70% of drinkable water in L.A. goes to millions of single-family homes. The rest goes to businesses, industries, public agencies and multi-family apartments, according to LADWP. At those single-family homes, around 30% to 40% of that water goes to outdoor irrigation, though that percentage can vary dramatically depending on the size and make-up of your yard.
But there’s only so much further conservation can go.
“That low-hanging fruit of toilets, showerheads — the kind of easier conservation items — the market is relatively saturated and we're having to move to higher on the conservation tree,” said Terrence McCarthy, manager of water resources at LADWP.
A 2017 study commissioned by LADWP found L.A.’s remaining conservation potential is saving an additional 140,000 acre-feet per year by 2035.
McCarthy said converting lawns to drought-tolerant landscapes is the next biggest fruit on the conservation tree. And given how much water goes to single-family residences, much of that transition will have to happen at the household level.
A changing urban landscape
Back in Leimert Park, Lynetta McElroy shared memories about her lawn.
“Our home was our magnet for our friends and family and for sports,” she said. “We taught our children how to throw that baseball, how to kick that soccer ball … this was our anchor. This was where we nurtured our children.”
Every year, they’d host a family event they called “Adieu to Summer,” where they’d barbecue and make s’mores and celebrate the young people in the family.
“Our daughter, our son, our nephew, nieces, before they went back to school, we would have a cookout outside in our back yard,” McElroy recalled.
She’d grown up in South Central L.A., where their home had a small lawn in the front and fruit trees in the back. She’d always wanted the same for her own children.
But in 2014, McElroy and her husband got an LADWP rebate to replace their lawn with drought-tolerant plants. Their children were off to college and the couple wanted to do some yard renovations anyway.
McElroy had also long been environmentally conscious and the state was in the middle of its driest periods in recorded history — our current drought has now taken that unfortunate title.
“Lawns look beautiful,” she said. “But I do feel that we should respect what's really happening around us. And that means that now we have to use less water.”
Now, instead of a lawn, they have fruit trees, a rain barrel and a food garden in the back. Instead of smelling like freshly cut grass, the front yard smells like geranium, oregano and rosemary, which McElroy plucks to cook with.
McElroy said as a result, they’ve cut their water use — and water bill — by about 30%. They were the first on their block to tear out their lawn …but not the last.
“Other neighbors started doing the same, and they even perfected their drought-tolerant yards better than we did,” she said.
That’s not uncommon. A 2020 study found that for every 100 Southland homes that converted their yards using a rebate from the Metropolitan Water District, an additional 132 nearby homes were inspired to convert their own grass as well. And a separate study found that fewer than 4% of those homes returned to grass, even if they were sold to a new owner.
But McElroy said it wasn’t easy to let go of their lawn, and they probably wouldn’t have done it before their kids had moved on to college.
“Children need to be able to go outside and sit on the grass, run around in bare feet and just enjoy nature where it's safe to do so,” McElroy said.
But it was also difficult in the context of the lawn being a defining characteristic of Leimert Park that became in many ways a visual representation of the perseverance of L.A.’s Black communities.
“When I look at the original design of Leimert Park … there's just a little bit of sadness to that,” McElroy said. “But I am happy that we are part of the solution.”
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