Rebates Drive Grass-Removal Frenzy in Drought

There's a torrent of Californians taking advantage of rebates for ripping out water-guzzling lawns during the drought, and that's providing a big boost to landscapers.

In Southern California in particular, things are poised to get even better for an industry that was battered by the recession and slow to recover. This week, the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted to replenish its turf removal and other water conservation programs with $350 million to meet booming demand.

In communities across the state, homeowners are swapping out traditional lawns for drought-tolerant plants and shrubs, changing the look of many yards and the business outlook for landscaping and nurseries.

"Where rebates exist, interest is high," said Sandra Giarde, executive director of the 2,000-member California Landscape Contractors Association.

The Metropolitan Water District says it has seen monthly rebate applications increase 20-fold since April, when Gov. Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water cuts. The agency currently has requests involving the conversion of about 60,000 front yards.

In Northern California, the Santa Clara County Water District issued rebates for the conversion of 1.2 million square feet of lawn in the first four months of the year, more than all of 2014.

"It's just gangbusters," said Marty Grimes, a district spokesman. "We have people waiting in line."

The rebates have helped long-time landscapers and also drawn newcomers to the industry. Last summer, a group of friends started Turf Terminators to process rebate paperwork and convert lawns for Southern California homeowners who sign over the cash, said Julian Fox, chief operating officer of the company.

"The rebate is what gets us in the door and gets us on a lot of people's radar," Fox said, adding the company has converted 4,000 lawns.

Under rebate programs, homeowners get money after they replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, or in some cases, artificial turf. Some go way over budget, adding odds and ends. Still, others make more thrifty use of the cash.

Raymond Aleman, a 71-year-old retiree from Los Angeles, tore out his thirsty lawn and planted a garden of pampas-style grasses, lavender and sage. He received nearly $5,000 in rebate cash and used half for his project and the rest to take a weeklong cruise to Mexico.

"I said, this is ridiculous not to do it, because it is not going to be any money out of my pocket," said Aleman, who designed the new yard himself to cut down on costs and now only needs to water once a week. "When I look out, I marvel at the idea I did it and it looks so nice."

But turf removal hasn't been a boon to everyone. Some small-time gardeners, who rely largely on mowing, have seen business dip as residents water less or convert landscapes, said Alvaro Huerta, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona who conducts research on Latino gardeners.

Some nurseries saw sales drop 15 percent or more in April, usually the peak month of the year. While sales of succulents, mulch and pottery are up, roses, bedding and tropical plants took a hit, industry leaders said.

"We were rocking and rolling like we normally do in spring, and business kind of significantly slowed down," said Ashley Rossi, owner of Folsom-based Green Acres Nursery and Supply and vice chair of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

Homeowners seem to be evaluating what to do with their yards since the water restrictions, she said.

Not every place in the state offers rebates -- nor does the cash always seem to matter. In the northern city of Redding, where officials are trying to get state funding to offer rebates, some homeowners have already ripped out lawns, said John Wendele, the city's water utility manager.

In the East Bay Municipal Utility District, interest in turf removal has surged even though a 50 cent-per-square-foot rebate has been available for years, said Nelsy Rodriguez, an agency spokeswoman.

"It is mostly the water conservation that is the motivation -- but the money certainly helps," she said.

Rick Jenkins, a 57-year-old retired firefighter, said he had already started digging up his yard in Gilroy when he learned about the rebate. He said he would have done the job anyway, but the cash helped him make it look much nicer.

But in some places, rebates matter. Applications to the Municipal Water District of Orange County increased after the rebate rate jumped last year, and tend to spike when Brown makes an announcement about the drought, said Joe Berg, the district's water use efficiency program manager.

Now, with the rebate reaching at least $2 per square foot, Berg said, "it's getting people off the couch and getting them to go out there and do their project."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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