In California drought, a $350 million experiment on tastes

2016-10-31 22:30
Rick Blankenship and his lawn at his home in Long Beach, California. (Nick Ut, AP)

Rick Blankenship and his lawn at his home in Long Beach, California. (Nick Ut, AP)

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San Francisco - Drought-ridden California poured more than $350m over the last two years into an experiment in social engineering - trying to turn residents' tastes away from water-slurping lawns. For Southern California's giant Metropolitan Water District, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent paying property owners to remove their lawns represented the agency's biggest single conservation programme ever. Now, state officials and dozens of local water districts are trying to figure out if California's lawn-killing campaign succeeded.

Here are things to know:

Removing lawns may sound like a small, wonky step, compared to building dams or erecting giant plants to take the salt from ocean water. But the green turf in American yards actually stands as a worthy target for water savings, a public enemy in the eyes of many during a drought such as California's ongoing five-year one.

Countrywide, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates one-third of all water used by American households goes to watering lawns and gardens. That's 34 billion litres of water each day - enough to supply drinking water daily for nine cities the size of New York.

From 2014 on, rebates ranging from 50 cents to more than $4 for each square foot of lawn removed a total of less than 25km2 of lawn state wide, figures from water officials around the state say. That's out of a total of about 2 589km2 of watered lawns and gardens, according to the Public Policy Institute of California think tank.

For some water districts, such as one in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa, the cost-effectiveness of the program is simple: The district will save more money on water going forward, thanks to the lawn reduction, than it spent on the rebates themselves. But other water districts say the key questions to study are longer term: Will people who took the rebates keep their yards lawn-free for 15 or 30 years, and will the rebates help set trends for lawn-free looks using plants more suitable to the climate?

In Southern California, Irvine Ranch water officials' early calculations are that for every three households that got rebates to remove their lawns, four others removed theirs without rebates.

Around the state, water districts are using everything from drive-bys to satellite photos to aerial, heat-sensing cameras to figure out just how much lawn has been killed off. In Irvine Ranch Water District, water officials also sent house-to-house surveys, and drove each block of some neighbourhoods.

Besides water savings, the California Department of Water Resources also is calculating reduced greenhouse-gas emissions thanks to less water transported and fewer hours of lawn-mowing. State wide, experts are still in the number-crunching phase on the rebate program.

Read more on:    us  |  water

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