MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The drought in California has never been worse. New data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows more than 58 percent of the state is in the worst possible kind of drought. And the state is short a year's worth of water in its reservoirs. California has made water cutbacks mandatory. People can be ticketed up to $500 for wasted water. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, some cities are even paying people to get rid of their lawns.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Consider Spartan Street in the San Fernando Valley in North Los Angeles a small window into some of the drought-driven changes occurring in Southern California. At one house, a gardener plods back and forth, neatly trimming a yard of green grass. A few houses down, a rototiller rips and tears grass out.
ANDREW FARRELL: Right here we're rototilling down three inches.
ROTT: Andrew Farrell is with Turf Terminators, a company that - as its name implies - terminates turf and replaces it with more drought-friendly, climate-appropriate vegetation.
FARRELL: I know for years people in the area have been wedded to their lawn. but times are changing.
ROTT: And turf terminators is looking to capitalize on that change. As the drought stretches into its third year with no end in sight, cities have started to sweeten the pot for people who conserve water. Here in LA, a homeowner can get up to $3 for every square foot of lawn that they convert from water-guzzling grass to more drought-appropriate alternatives like perennials or drought-resistant shrubs like lavender and sage. Farrell's landscaping company does all that work for homeowners.
FARRELL: And the catch is that we can do for free 'cause we rely on available government rebates.
ROTT: In other words, they pocket that $3 rebate as payment for all of their paperwork, legwork and labor. Farrell says it's good for them, good for the homeowners and good for the city. Penny Falcon agrees. She's the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or the LADWP.
PENNY FALCON: You know, on average 50 percent of our water that our residential customers use is used outdoors.
ROTT: By switching away from grass, she says they expect the average customer would decrease that water use by up to 20 percent, or about 44-gallons-a-year for every square foot of lawn. But another way...
FALCON: If you assume it's a 2000 square foot area, you're going to save about $800 per year on your water bill.
ROTT: That kind of math is enticing a growing number of homeowners in the LA area. Turf Terminators says business is booming. And the LADWP says they've seen a tenfold increase in the number of properties making the conversion this year compared to last. But overall, that's still a relative drop in the bucket. Just over 1,100 properties have made the conversion this year. For perspective, that's about one-tenth of 1% of all the properties served by the LADWP. Homeowner Fred Schlesinger is in the majority. He's watering his front yard in a very well-manicured part of LA on a weekday morning.
It's a beautiful lawn Fred.
FRED SCHLESINGER: Thank you.
ROTT: When he's finished, he shuts off the water and walks out into the grass.
SCHLESINGER: I love it.
ROTT: You love your lawn?
SCHLESINGER: Yeah. I have grandkids that come over, and they love running on the grass.
ROTT: So the idea of tearing out your grass is kind of...
SCHLESINGER: I have in the back of my mind to do it, but I - I'm not at the point yet.
ROTT: Almost nobody on his entire street is at that point yet, or on the street next to his or the one after that. It's block after block of houses set behind nice, green lawns. Schlesinger says if the drought continues, he may rethink watering his grass.
SCHLESINGER: Because, you know, it's a very big luxury to have a green lawn in the desert, basically - semi-desert.
ROTT: For now though, he's going to keep on watering, justifying his decision by letting the backyard go brown. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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