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Politics and Government

San Diego Homeowners Rip Up Their Lawns In Exchange For Rebates


The massive drought in California means people are coming to terms with this - water used on lawns is water wasted. Many cities are offering rebates to homeowners who remove their grass. But as Claire Trageser from member station KPBS tells us, the conversion away from grass can still be a tough sell.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: Joey Davis stands amidst the lush green grass in front of his San Diego home.

JOEY DAVIS: I don't want to lose it. I don't want to give it up.

TRAGESER: He talks about removing his lawn as if he's saying goodbye to an old friend.

DAVIS: Coming home to a nice green lawn, it looks good. Coming in my driveway, it looks nice.

TRAGESER: While Davis is sad, he understands the drought means he should let go. He signed up for San Diego's turf rebate program, which pays homeowners $1.50 a square foot to take out their grass lawns. He needs the rebate to help cover the cost of his redesign.

DAVIS: I'm not going to go make it look like a desert and have it be ugly. If it's going to replace this nice green, I want it to look nice. And so my estimate is, you know, at least $2,000 if I do it myself.

TRAGESER: He's lucky he signed up early for the city's rebate program because a week after it was announced, the money had dried up. In mid-April, San Diego poured $750,000 into the program, but now that money is gone and the city won't offer more rebates until July.

LUIS GENEROSO: I was expecting that the total money would last us till June and then the new money will kick in in July so it would be almost seamless.

TRAGESER: Luis Generoso is San Diego's water resources manager. He says every square foot of lawn removed saves 44 gallons of water each year. But the city's water rebate program ran out of money so quickly that only a small group could sign up. To stop losing ground in its battle to keep losing turf, the city is looking to the state for more money.

GENEROSO: As we ask for more funding, say, from the governor, we're saying that San Diegans are ready and San Diegans are quick to make that decision and make that transformation, so it's money that will be spent wisely and spent fast.

MARILYN GUIDROZ: This is like a canvas waiting to be painted, isn't it?

TRAGESER: Landscape designer Marilyn Guidroz scans a large plot in Rancho Santa Fe. That's a San Diego suburb notorious for its high water use. She's working with another designer, Nan Sterman, on landscaping to replace the grass.

GUIDROZ: Because this is such a big, flat space, I wonder if maybe we should do some elevations.

NAN STERMAN: Yeah, some mounds.

GUIDROZ: Some mounds.

STERMAN: I could see that, especially in front of the walls.

TRAGESER: Sterman says grass lawns aren't meant for Southern California's dry Mediterranean climate, but homeowners want them because that's what they grew up with.

STERMAN: They say, well, I want what I - what's familiar to me and then some people want lawn because they, frankly, don't know what else to choose. It's sort of the default.

TRAGESER: Sterman's job is to try to persuade people to consider other options, including native plants like bluegrass, cacti or agave.

STERMAN: Succulents and other low water plants are some of the most colorful and beautiful plants that we have available to us. It's a matter of knowing which plants to use and then being a little bit experimental because we all know what to do with lawn, but a lot of people don't know what to do with those other kinds of plants. It's just being brave and doing it.

TRAGESER: San Diego's round of rebates from April should eliminate 500,000 square feet of grass, saving enough water annually to fill 33 Olympic swimming pools. But not everyone is contributing. At the very news conference where the rebate program was announced, San Diego's mayor said his grass is here to stay. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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