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Drought Watch: Our Thirsty Lawns

This is part of a continuing series on the impact of the drought.

The unprecedented restrictions on outdoor water use that the state enacted this week send a message that Californians need to conserve more water. But we can do more to move toward sustainable consumption. To help the state get through this drought—which may continue into 2015—and prepare for a future that will include repeated droughts, local agencies should go further to encourage long-term changes in how we use water outdoors.

Outdoor water demands—which account for roughly half of all urban water use—are highest during the hot, dry summer months. Experts regularly cite reductions in landscape watering as “low hanging fruit” during droughts. But, as we’ve learned, it is not enough to just ask people to cut back: during the 2007–2009 drought, outdoor water use did not significantly decline despite repeated calls for conservation.

The main culprit is Californians’ love affair with lawns. Not only do lawns require a lot of water to look good, but people also tend to overwater them. Water agencies should seize the opportunity presented by the drought—and the publicity surrounding the new restrictions—to offer incentives for switching out thirsty lawns. For instance, Long Beach has a turf buyback program that offers rebates to customers who replace grass lawns with low-water-using plants—which have the added benefit of lending themselves to more-efficient irrigation systems. Finding attractive alternatives to lawns is easier than ever before, now that major garden retailers offer a range of California-friendly plants. Gone are the days of cacti and gravel being the only options.

Water pricing can also motivate customers to make the switch. Tiered rate structures—which charge a higher price per gallon for higher use—help send a message about the real costs of our landscaping choices. More than half of urban water agencies currently have some form of tiered rates, though recent legal challenges to their constitutionality under Prop 218 threaten to undermine these very important tools.

During droughts, it makes sense for water agencies to charge higher prices per gallon than they do in normal years. This provides additional conservation incentives while ensuring that agencies bring in enough to cover costs when they are selling less water. The city of Roseville, for example, implemented a temporary 15 percent drought surcharge starting in June. But according to a State Water Resourses Control Board survey, only 7 percent of agencies have enacted drought pricing strategies this year.

So far, no region has reached the governor’s 20 percent conservation goal, and water use has actually increased in some regions. Over the next few months we will see whether increased watering restrictions and threat of fines can deliver the conservation message to all Californians.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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