SoCal Connected on KCET

The Lawn Goodbye and California's Water Woes

Original Airdate May 28, 2014

Jennifer Sabih: California is bone dry. Rivers and reservoirs are dangerously depleted from what is shaping up to be the worst drought in almost 500 years. And these beautifully manicured lawns use more water in Southern California than almost anything else.

Russell Ackerman: In fact, about 60 percent of the water bill goes to watering the landscape. And most of that is watering the grass.

Jennifer Sabih: That use of a dwindling water supply promoted Gov. Jerry Brown to issue to executive orders. The first, asking Californians to voluntarily cut their water use by 20 percent. Several months later, to put homeowners on notice, to twice a week.

Russell Ackerman: If the weather patterns don’t change, then we’ll be on the road to mandatory restrictions. We spend millions and millions of dollars in the State of California to clean up water, to transport it across the state, to bring it to your house. But what’s the real kicker is that the average sprinkler system in the United States is only 55 percent efficient. You’re actually applying a lot of that to the street and the sidewalk.

Jennifer Sabih: Yet even when presented with the facts, giving up the green lawn won’t be easy. Somehow these little blades of green have taken root in the soil and soul of Southern California.

Lee Coltman: In the middle class suburban ideal we have associated the good life with the lawn. When I close my eyes and I think of paradise I think of something that looks a lot like suburbia. It gives people a sense of community, of a sense that everyone belongs. This is what it looks like to truly live the American dream.

Jennifer Sabih: A dream so ingrained in our psyches that when someone doesn’t live to it, professor Coltman says it’s only natural to wonder if the lives of the inhabitants have also gone to seed.

Lee Coltman: What’s going wrong that you cannot understand and you know conform with what is our neighborhood understanding of what it means to be a good person.

Jennifer Sabih: Maybe in the midst of a drought we need a new definition of good neighbor. Is it possible to be green and still have a green lawn?

Russell Ackerman: There are lawn alternatives. If you’re looking for something that is truly like a lawn..dogs can run on it, kids can play on it, a popular grass here in Santa Monica is UC Verde Buffalograss.

Jennifer Sabih: And Santa Monica landscape designer and mother of three Arlene Ferrara has them both. Buffalograss in the front and California Bent in the back.

Arlene Ferrara: In terms of an advantage with the UC Buffalograss, the water savings are huge. It’s a 75 percent savings in terms of water.

Jennifer Sabih: You mow this grass once every 3 months as opposed to turf grass?

Arlene Ferrara: Yeah. Every week.

Jennifer Sabih: A typical lawn can use 3,000 gallons of water a month. Native California Bentgrass uses half that much, 1,500 gallons. And UC Verde Buffalograss consumes 75 percent less than that typical lawn just 750 gallons a month. So let’s put it to the touch test. A walk in the grass. Now to my toes it feels actually softer than turf grass. The other aspect of grass is its resilience. Kids can play in it. But some Southern Californians have found a way to lose the lawn all together. Welcome to Mar Vista, where hundreds of residents have kissed their grass goodbye. You won’t find wet sidewalks here or arid sprinklers splashing onto pavement. Every precious drop of water is put to use. Are you actually saving water?

Marilee Kuhlmann: The vegetables use the same as much as lawn but there’s a smaller square footage. So I’m saving water that way.

Jennifer Sabih: The only constraint is imagination and M.A. Bjarkman’s was working overtime.

M.A. Bjarkman: One day I went to the arboretum and I saw succulents for the first time in my life and I fell under their spell.

Jennifer Sabih: At first, she just placed them in pots. Then she took a look at the backyard pool and took the plunge.

M.A. Bjarkman: We filled it with 11 dump trunks of dirt because it was a big, deep pool. And the butterflies and bees love this all year long. These are 99 percent-drought resistant. They need little water and they give me such joy.

Jennifer Sabih: And they could give you some extra cash. Our website will tell you how to get $3 a square foot for ripping out your lawn. That could add up to thousands of dollars and could make Southern California a place where gardens drink responsibly. I’m Jennifer Sabih for “SoCal Connected.”

Southern California is known for its array of perfectly manicured lawns and palm trees. But with an ongoing drought -- the worst in more than 500 years -- SoCal residents are being urged to cut down on water usage and find alternatives.

One expert told "SoCal Connected" reporter Jennifer Sabih that nearly 60 percent of the water bill goes to the upkeep of manicured lawns and the watering landscape in Southern California.

In the midst of a drought, some residents have turned to inexpensive lawn alternatives like UC Verde Buffalograss or the California Bentgrass, which uses nearly half the water required by typical lawns.

Thinking of bidding farewell to your lawn? As an incentive, the Department of Water and Power is offering homeowners $2 per square foot of grass removed.

Those embracing a lawn-free zone include gardens in Mar Vista which are home to drought-resistant succulents and vegetables. KCET Living has a list of standout homes that have eliminated lawns and incorporated drought-friendly alternatives.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Russell Ackerman, City of Santa Monica
  • Lee Coltman, cultural anthropologist
  • Arlene Ferrara, landscape designer
  • Leigh Curran, Mar Vista homeowner
  • Marilee Kuhlmann, Mar Vista homeowner
  • M.A. Bjarkman, Mar Vista homeowner


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