As the drought deepens and the state water board revises its plans for mandatory restrictions this week, California’s lawn culture has flipped, dirt-side up. With outdoor watering being called a society-threatening scourge, your local community pillars, once celebrated for lawns and gardens even greener than their money, run the risk of becoming social outcasts.
On the other side of this flip is your columnist, who is allergic to lawn watering and pretty much all other forms of lawn maintenance. Now, at the dawn of this new and drier California era, I find that I have become—quite unexpectedly and unintentionally—fashionable. Not to mention an accidental avatar of civic virtue. It used to be that if you didn’t keep your lawn a pristine green, you didn’t care. Now, you don’t care if you do.
“More and more people want to move away from having to spend weekends mowing lawns,” Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips told KQED recently, thus heralding my own allergy to lawn care as socially progressive. She also said: “It’s sort of a learning moment for all of us.”
And not just because we hate thinking of water as finite, but also because of the fervent devotion so many Californians have to beauty and design. I hope my own story can serve as beacon, parable, and perhaps comfort to those who may be wondering whether life can go on when their green grass turns to dust.
When my wife and I bought our home in South Pasadena nearly four years ago, schools for our little kids—not lawns or drought—were on our minds. The house itself was, and remains, a mess. But we also inherited several lovely fruit-giving trees and an unpretentious Bermuda grass front yard served by an automatic sprinkler system. For our part, we put in grass behind the house where a collapsing garden shed had stood.
Then came the water bills—they were shockingly high, nearly $200 monthly. We cut back on watering to twice a week. We installed low-flow toilets and a new washing machine. But the bills stayed high. The problem, as it turned out, was our small city, which had neglected to update its aging water infrastructure for decades. To replace that failing infrastructure, the city has increased rates more than 170 percent over the past seven years.
So at about this time last year, I stopped watering altogether.
Money was the biggest motivator. Lack of time was another—with three kids and a demanding job, lawn care was never going to be a priority. The drought provided a justification for a shut-off. And my own travels through this water-stressed state, particularly in the Delta and the San Joaquin Valley, reinforced my determination to avoid watering my Southern California lawn.
As a descendant of Okies, I was prepared for the outside to go full Dust Bowl, but that didn’t happen. In back, the new lawn has survived just fine, with some bare patches. (To keep trees alive, I’ve given them bath water). In front, the changes have been dramatic. On the south side of the lawn, the grass still grows, still green, protected by shade from a neighbor’s trees and a magnolia on the street. But the sunbaked north half slowly turned yellow, before giving way to dirt patches. Weeds—some carrying beautiful yellow flowers, some with nasty stickers that hurt my hands when I pull them—have gotten a foothold. Relatives and neighbors agree: My lawn looks awful.
At first, I felt guilty. But that didn’t last. Two people across the street sold homes for well over their asking prices, so clearly my lawn wasn’t hurting property values. My 6-year-old, who has deeply absorbed all the water conservation messages in the California media, began taking note of all the homeowners with sprinklers pouring water onto sidewalks and streets on his short walk to kindergarten; I didn’t want to turn the water back on and risk his wrath. And my bills have come down, though they still remain high by the standards of many Californians—about $70 a month.
Now, with the full force of the State Water Resources Control Board and Gov. Brown’s mandatory 25 percent reduction behind me, I feel pride when I look at what’s outside my front door. When the state disclosed that my city had some of the highest water use rates in the state, and would be required to cut down by 35 percent, my pride swelled into moral superiority. Some of us need an intervention, but not in my household.
Yes, I can hear the horrified screams of the gardeners and the horticulturists and the homeowners associations and the good neighbors across our state: Not watering at all is not an answer! You can’t just let your lawn become an eyesore! I know. I know. The change in lawn culture will require more from me.
But what exactly is required? And how on earth am I supposed to balance my responsibilities to my neighbors, the state water supply, the environment, and the family pocketbook?
After a couple of months of investigating the possibilities, I have no clear answers to those questions.
Official and expert opinions contradict themselves. Many water agencies want to pay Californians to take out their turf and replace it with drought-resistant landscaping, which sounds good. Except that the reimbursement rates cover only a fraction of the cost. And if you do what’s most responsible and aesthetically pleasing, it could run $20,000 for even a small lawn like mine, which is about $19,500 more than I can afford to spend on this.
There are some very cheap options, but those typically replace your lawn with unsightly landscaping and hard surfaces that can add to the “heat island” effect of cities. To confuse things further, some experts argue that the right kind of grass, maintained with very low levels of water, can be better for the environment than some drought-resistant landscaping.
Reading the fervent and contradictory advice, one can see that the arguments during this shift in lawn culture will be as much about ideals of beauty and neighborhood as about water. That’s fine, but for the legions of us who don’t care about looks and don’t have time, the water worthies need to get their stories straight and give clear guidance. How do I—cheaply—keep the front of my house presentable and water-wise?
If no answer is forthcoming, I’m perfectly happy to keep the water off. Let others bemoan the eyesore I’ve created. I’ll be celebrating my civic-mindedness.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor of Zócalo Public Square.
Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.