by Betsy Herbert
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 11/19/2014
Have you noticed that, at least in some Santa Cruz neighborhoods, green lawns no longer rule? I’ve observed on my morning walks over the past few months that brown lawns outnumber green ones by about 10 to 1.
Given that we’re in the midst of California’s worst drought on record and that lawns require more water than any other landscape plant, this is a welcome trend.
While local water agencies have not required Santa Cruz residents to replace or completely stop watering their lawns, water is now rationed and it’s clear that many residents have chosen not to use their limited water allotments to keep their lawns green.
According to state water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, “a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community.” Strange as it seems, though, some jurisdictions in California have threatened homeowners with fines for not keeping their lawns sufficiently green during the drought.
Just after Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last January, the city of Glendora threatened a couple with a $500 fine if they didn't take care of their brown lawn, and a homeowner’s association in Alameda County threatened a man with a $1,000 fine for not watering his lawn. Apparently, the myth of the lush green lawn as a symbol of suburban gentility dies hard in some places.
Shortly afterwards, the governor signed legislation prohibiting homeowners associations from fining residents who stop watering during a drought.
True, a brown lawn can be seen as a badge of water conservation, but it’s hard to argue that a brown lawn is attractive. Nor is a brown lawn likely a permanent water conservation solution, since the homeowner likely intends to resume watering it when the drought ends.
What offers more promise are the many gorgeous gardens of drought-tolerant plants popping up all over the county and the state--a movement that demonstrates a more permanent and beautiful alternative to big thirsty suburban lawns.
A very useful website offers advice to Santa Cruz County gardeners in selecting, planting, and maintaining drought tolerant plants http://www.santacruz.watersavingplants.com. The website showcases local examples of drought tolerant gardens in front yards, back yards, entry ways, hillsides, shrub borders and parking strips.
Lush green lawns have long been accepted as the gold standard of a well maintained residential yard. But a long list of scientists, beginning with Rachel Carson in the 1960s, has brought to light the environmental impacts of lawns. . . and they are considerable.
According to the US EPA, the typical suburban lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water per year, not counting rainwater.
Nationwide, nearly 30 million acres of lawn are routinely treated with lawn care chemicals. Approximately 35 pesticides are used in more than 90 percent of lawn treatments, and some of these are highly toxic to honeybees and bumblebees, according to a study by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Lawn-care pesticides have also been identified as a common cause of death among the birds and as a potential cause of widespread amphibian decline.
To facilitate lawn replacement, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, San Lorenzo Valley and Soquel Creek Water districts all offer rebates/credits to customers to replace their turf, ranging from $.50 to $1.50 per square foot. Such rebate programs have proliferated throughout the state.
Lawn replacement efforts are paying off. For example, more than one million square feet of grass has been removed from Los Angeles residences since the rebate program began there in 2009.
Perhaps this trend signals the beginning of a new lawn-less era in the arid west.