Los Angeles homeowners remove lawns during drought

AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — Erin Brockovich made a name for herself decades ago as an environmental activist who exposed corporate misdeeds that polluted drinking water.

She therefore felt a bit on the defensive when a television journalist asked how his name landed on a list of water users during a severe drought in California. Sometime last year she was billed for $1,700 for two months worth of water and fines.

Ms Brockovich finally decided she had to get rid of her lawn, a central part of the backyard oasis she had built over more than two decades in Agoura Hills, a suburb of large houses with immaculate courtyards about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. . She replaced 3,100 square feet of grass with high-tech artificial turf.

“This is not a fire drill, and each of us must participate in it,” she said. “We have to overcome blame and sadness.”

For the better part of a century, the lawn has been one of Southern California’s most enduring middle-class fantasies: a single-family home with a manicured emerald yard that always remains lush – even in the height of summer, when much of the area’s native vegetation is golden brown.

But as climate change exposes the limits of water supplies, homeowners and water officials say the end of the thirsty lawn could finally be here.

Where residents once looked askance at any yard that looked like a desert diorama, there are now parades of gravel beds dotted with cacti, native plant gardens and artificial grass. The change reflects a different kind of pressure from neighboring peers, supercharged by tough new water restrictions that came into effect in June.

For most of the past year, 300 candidates per month searched discounts who paid homeowners to trade the grass, according to Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which distributes water to utilities serving 19 million people. In May, the number rose to 870. In June, it was almost 1,400.

Many don’t even need cash incentives. A recent study by the water agency found that for every 100 homeowners who took advantage of the discounts, 132 others nearby also made the switch.

In Woodland Hills, a Los Angeles neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, where temperatures are consistently warmer than along the coast, Alex Hoffmaster and Camilla Jessen recently purchased a ranch with dead lawn. Rather than revive it, they decided to install decomposed granite and native plants, inspired by a family across the street.

‘Having a lawn here in the valley is complete nonsense,’ said Ms Jessen, 45, as she maneuvered her 5-month-old son Scout through a flash of shade on a recent afternoon at 100 degrees.

A few blocks away, 71-year-old Jerry Landsdowne inspected the small lawn outside the house he bought in 1997. The stains had begun to look beige and dry.

“The care I used to show towards the pitch,” he said, shaking his head. He fondly remembers how, for a decade, he mowed the grass for an older neighbor, one of the few remaining World War II veterans in the community. The refund consisted of a beer tasted under the shade of a mulberry tree.

But Mr Landsdowne said he had recently considered replacing his lawn as the drought persisted.

Nearby Hollywood has long exported a vision of the American dream that included a tidy house with a meticulously manicured lawn. (Imagine the kids in “The Brady Bunch” leaping out the sliding kitchen door of their house – modeled on a real in the San Fernando Valley – and on an eternally green backyard.)

Despite this representation, the region has a patchwork of communities with different landscaping conventions. Many Los Angeles neighborhoods have yards that would be considered tiny by, say, Midwesterners, and dirt or concrete lots are hardly unusual.

Still, real grass often reigns supreme in affluent neighborhoods.

In Hancock Park, a historic enclave in central Los Angeles, Bill Newby, 65, said sloping lawns were essential to his community’s identity.

“We see people coming into this neighborhood all the time, jogging,” he said. “Halloween here is delicious.”

While Mr Newby said he was working to keep up with the city’s watering restrictions – two assigned days per week – he found them frustrating.

“I don’t think watering lawns a few days a week is a major use of water, compared to agriculture and golf courses,” he said. “I scratch my head and say, ‘We all have to do our part. However, is it an easy target? »

Experts say getting rid of lawns alone won’t solve the state’s water problem. And there are ongoing debates about who should bear the most painful cuts: residents of California cities, where per capita water use has steadily declined, or farmerswho claim to grow food for the nation.

Southern California’s rise depended on easy access to water. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which opened in 1913brought millions of gallons from the Owens River Valley over 200 miles to what would quickly become the nation’s second most populous city – an engineering triumph that defied nature.

Los Angeles’ growth in the following decades coincided with a burgeoning middle class whose aspirations for suburban homesteading traced back to the English countryside. There, lawns were one of the first ways to display visible wealth among the landed gentry, said Stony Brook University history professor Christopher Sellers, who has written about lawns in the States. -United.

American horticulturalists have developed hardier grass hybrids designed to survive in hotter, drier climates, although they still need regular watering. And the lawn made its way west to California, where it established itself as what Mr. Sellers described as “the cultural norm, the expectation.”

The vast Los Angeles area was built on the idea that anyone can own a piece of land with a lawn and a driveway. Still, one need only take a look at nearby nature reserves to see what plants would otherwise thrive here.

On a recent sweltering afternoon, Evan Meyer drove down a winding dirt road in Sun Valley, another Los Angeles neighborhood, and stopped on a flat hill for a scenic view. He runs the Theodore Payne Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs an increasingly popular native plant nursery.

In the foreground, Mr. Meyer pointed to the mottled khaki and rust-colored expanse of the Verdugo Mountains. In the background loomed the Santa Monica Mountains, covered in coastal sagebrush.

“And then we see the urban environment of the San Fernando Valley,” he said, pointing to the area in between: dense and varied green textures, interrupted by the grey-white of stucco and ribbons of asphalt . Almost none of the plants, he said, “were selected for any reason other than ‘What’s easier or what’s prettier?'”

Over the decades, lawn supremacy has withstood the cycles of drought and rain. However, due to climate change, droughts have become more frequent and intense.

“The new drought is a scorching drought,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. “We have to be ready for it to get acute quickly.”

Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, last year pleaded with residents to voluntarily cut back. But water use in some parts of the state has actually increased, and Mr Newsom said this year he would impose mandatory restrictions if water agencies could not urge people to conserve . “This is a wake-up call,” Adel Hagekhalil, chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District, said in April when describing the new watering restrictions. According to the district, Southern California water agencies have met and exceeded conservation goals since the rules took effect. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers used 11% less water last month than in July 2021.

A recent study by PPIC found that 51% of Los Angeles residents said they and their families had done a lot to reduce water use, the highest figure in the state. Yet 70% of Los Angeles residents said people there still aren’t doing enough.

Across the region, landscapers specializing in drought-tolerant plants and artificial turf say they are scrambling to keep up with demand. “I feel like an analogy is that it’s Covid and we’re the only ones wearing masks,” said Mitchell Katz, owner of Camarillo-based Turf Exchange, which replaced grass. by artificial turf for almost a decade.

Ms Brockovich was a client of Mr Katz, a complete convert to artificial turf, which she says looks nothing like older versions of fake turf, with no disturbing coloration.

Although such a lawn eliminates the need for watering, it must be replaced approximately every 20 years, generating plastic waste. This environmental cost disqualified him from the MWD rebate program.

At the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery, families browsed the rows of narrow-leaved milkweed and the scent of sage, herbs and earth heavy in the warm air.

Lorna Estrada, 50, and her daughter, Sienna Kochakji, 13, had come from the Lake Balboa neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley to “window shop,” as Ms. Estrada put it. A fifth-grade teacher, Ms Estrada said she taught her students about drought and climate change. She said she wanted to take on an outside project with Sienna.

So, after 15 years of weighing the idea, she said, “We’re finally letting our lawn down.

Meyer said he hopes that one day soon the San Fernando Valley region will be more like the natural landscapes through which so many Angelenos enjoy hiking. He added that the drought is catalyzing the transition.

“A lawn is basically a big, barren green carpet that uses a lot of water for its upkeep,” he said. “We advocate for a future where our urban spaces blend seamlessly into their natural surroundings.”

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