Metropolitan Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and Southern Nevada Water Authority’s turf replacement programs highlighted in a Water Research Foundation webinar
As California enters what could be yet another year of drought conditions, cities and communities looking to reduce water use have turned to programs aimed at encouraging residents to remove thirsty turf grass and replace it with native landscaping or other low- or no-water use alternatives. Many water utilities run programs that pay homeowners rebates, oftentimes providing support for the transition as well. On July 9, the Water Research Foundation held a webcast on turf replacement programs that highlighted the successful programs developed at Metropolitan Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
This webinar was one in a four-part series of webcasts the Water Research Foundation held in July spotlighting drought management and communications information pertinent to water utilities, utilizing the drought in California as a case study. The Water Research Foundation also produces a variety of webinars highlighting topics of interest to water utilities, and all are available online for free. Click here for a listing of webcasts available from the Water Research Foundation.
BILL McDONNELL, Metropolitan Water District
Bill McDonnell is the Water Efficiency Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of California. He manages many conservation programs that are on pace to rebate over $350 million to commercial, industrial, and residential customers this year. His team also runs an innovative conservation program which provides approximately a half a million dollars in grants for new conservation technologies.
Metropolitan is a wholesaler, supplying water to about 300 agencies and about 19 million people in Southern California. “We are a large wholesaler and we have a lot of retailers and so we designed our program around that,” Mr. McDonnell said.
Metropolitan imports water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project; within the service area, the LADWP receives water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct; they also manage local resources such as groundwater, desalination, and water recycling. “What we provide is about 50-60% of the water in our service area,” he said.
He then presented a map of the Metropolitan Service area, noting that the different colors represent Metropolitan’s member agencies. “We serve as wholesalers, and we also serve cities, like the city of Los Angeles or the city of Burbank or the city of Santa Monica, so our customers are diversified,” he said. “We sell to other wholesalers who then sell to wholesalers, so Met is selling to San Diego and San Diego is selling to the city of San Diego and on and on so in our service area, it is very layered so what we tried to do is create a regional program.”
Mr. McDonnell said that the severe drought in California is the reason for their program. “Our turf removal program is pretty new,” he said. “The California State Water Resources Control Board has given each city a percentage to reduce, depending upon their gallons per person per day, so some of our cities have to cut 36% and some of our cities are in the 8 to 12% range. This is driving people to our program.”
“Landscaping has tended to be what the State Water Resources Control Board, what the Governor, and now what Metropolitan has focused on,” he said. “The reason why we are focused on landscaping is that it’s basically ornamental water use. We need what little amount of water we have left for sanitary purposes, for plumbing, for businesses, but landscape water use is considered ornamental and not necessary right now.”
Landscaping is basically the efficiency you can see or not see, Mr. McDonnell said. “Wherever you are, what building you’re in, that building could be very energy efficient or water efficient, but if you drive by the building or the home, nobody knows that,” he said. “What people do know is that they see your landscaping, and the state has focused on that. Cities can drive by your house and drive by your business and see if you’re overwatering. They can’t drive by your business and see how many cycles of concentration you have in your cooling tower, so landscaping has become the visual medium for water efficiency.”
He then presented examples of the type of landscaping that they are looking for. “This is drip irrigated, California-friendly landscaping, and stormwater capture off the roof of this commercial building,” he said. “The climate appropriate plants that work in Los Angeles will be a little different in San Diego and so forth, but if people have climate appropriate plants, they will be a lot better off.”
The turf removal program was designed with 19 million people and 300 cities in mind. The objectives of the program are accelerating the state mandate of 20% reduction in water use by 2020, increase public awareness, and create the snowballing effect of market transformation, he said.
Metropolitan Water District started the turf removal program back in 2008, offering 30 cents a square foot. “The 30 cents a square foot is based on studies on how much water we saw that turf removal was saving per square foot in our avoided cost,” he said. “Our avoided cost as a wholesaler is going to be a lot different than the avoided cost at a retailer and the avoided cost at the customer level, but at our level, at the wholesale level, it was worth about 30 cents a square foot. We received a federal grant, and that grant was able to bump our rebate up to about a dollar a square foot. Eventually, like most grants, it went away, and so we ended up asking our board to maintain it at a dollar. A dollar a square foot was a nice round number and our board maintained it.”
With this particular program, the member agencies, such as the City of Santa Monica and the city of Burbank, would run their own turf removal programs, and invoice Metropolitan for the dollar per square foot. “What you have when you have 300 cities is maybe 20 or 30 cities doing a program and 200 cities not doing it, so we had a lot of our customers who weren’t able to partake in the program just because the city they lived in maybe didn’t have the staffing or manpower to do a program,” Mr. McDonnell said.
So about a year ago, Metropolitan Water District launched a regional turf removal program, and set it up similar to other regional rebate programs. “Metropolitan hires a vendor, so there’s a website and customers go there and they get a rebate. If a local entity like Los Angeles wants to add money, the customer then gets Metropolitan money plus the Los Angeles money, so they only have to fill out one application; then at the end of the month, I send an invoice to Los Angeles,” he said. “All of our rebate programs are regional, except for turf. But in January of 2014, we decided to turn the turf program regional, because we were getting very, very little activity when each individual city was doing it, and not all of our cities were participating.”
A few months later as the drought worsened, the Board increased the rebate to $2 per square foot, Mr. McDonnell said. “Those two things in my program were the key,” he said. “Once we became a regional program so then it was one-stop shop, customers could go online, and once the rebate got to two dollars, things went crazy.”
The $2 a square foot was the same for both commercial and residential, Mr. McDonnell said. “A lot of our commercial projects were medians,” he said. “A lot of cities were taking out turf in their medians and the right of ways on their sidewalks because the cities were trying to meet their 12, 15, 18, 36% water reductions.”
He presented a slide showing growth in interest in the program, noting that in 2014, applications were in the single digits, and once the rebate was increased to $2 per square foot, they were handling 450 applications a month. “It may not seem like a lot of applications, but if each one of those applications is 100, 200, 500, $800,000, that’s a lot of money going out, and that’s on the commercial side,” he said.
It was a similar situation for the residential rebates. “Once the program became regional and once the program because $2 a square foot, with the Governor and the state telling them how much they have to reduce by on top of that, we’re not getting a few hundred applications – we’re getting a few thousand applications,” he said. “We were getting 10,000 residential applications a month … We were not able to sustain this.”
“So once that April 1st declaration by the Governor and assigning people a percentage, our turf removal program just went through the roof,” he said, presenting a chart showing weekly totals. “You’ll see number of applications skyrocketed … If you look at the bottom slide, the numbers there, and this is per week. One week, $38 million in applications, another $23 million.”
One of the issues with the design of the program was by having the rebate a $2 a square foot for both commercial and residential, the commercial customers with the larger conversions were getting a disproportionate share of the money. “We might have been doing 15,000 applications for residential and 50 applications for commercial, but we were spending more money on the commercial side,” he said.
Mr. McDonnell acknowledged that the design of the program with the uniform rebate wasn’t achieving what they really had wanted. “It’s a philosophical question. Do you want to get one golf course saving x amount of water or would you rather get 1000 homes? It’s hard to say. Some of our board members wanted the golf course and some of our board members wanted the homes, so it went back and forth, but the issue was residential versus commercial, and public versus private, so we had these debates at many of our board meetings.”
He then presented a slide showing the distribution of the rebate requests. “On the left hand side, 15,500 customers and on the right hand side, that’s 30 customers, so basically 30 customers were using the same amount of rebate money as 15,500 customers,” he said. “We’re getting the same water savings, but is that the way the program should be designed? If we didn’t make a design change, we were anticipating expenditures per year, well beyond our budget.”
So in May of 2015, the Metropolitan Board of Directors authorized an additional $350 million, Mr. McDonnell said. “This was huge – Normally our budget is about $15 million, so we went from $15 million to $350 million,” he said. “And they changed the rules. The commercial rebate was reduced to a dollar, we put caps on the program, and we geared the program more towards residential.”
Bottom line: is it working? “I think it is,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of publicity, we’re changing the market, obviously we’re doing thousands and thousands of homes, and a lot of big customers too. In a very short period of time, pretty much any newspaper, magazine, TV, or radio, they are talking about turf removal, they are talking about landscape transformation. It’s on social media … so I think we are accomplishing what we want, so when our rebates run out, because they will run out, what we’re hoping is that customers still do turf removal, even without our funding.”
“The Governor asked California during this drought to take out 50 million square feet of turf,” he said. “Metropolitan and our member agencies will take out over 150 million square feet of turf just on our own.”
In his closing comments, Mr. McDonnell noted that the changes made to the program in May have changed it to more of a residential program, with 85% of the rebates now going to residential customers. He also noted that the rebates are also now distributed throughout Metropolitan’s service area.
CARLOS MICHELON, San Diego County Water Authority
Carlos Michelon is the principal water resource specialist at the San Diego County Water Authority, where he manages the agency’s landscape water conservation programs. He has developed effective conservation programs, such as the Sustainable Landscapes Program and the Drought Response and Outreach Program.
The San Diego County Water Authority is a member agency of Metropolitan and a wholesale water utility serving 24 member agencies who support a population of about 3.1 million people.
“Urban landscapes represent the next frontier for water conservation,” Carlos Michelon began. “In California, we have the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance which provides technical guidelines or minimum requirements statewide for landscaping, and we align our voluntary programs to these standards. What is different about the Water Authority’s approach to turf conversion and landscape conservation at large, is we take a long-term market transformation approach to these programs, so there is a lot more than cash-for-grass incentives to our programs.”
Based on extensive market research, they developed the Water Smart brand identity with the tag line, ‘A better way to beautiful.’ Through many different products, they seek to inspire ratepayers to make changes in their lifestyle toward more water efficient ways and to take action, he said.
“When you invite the public to participate and to contemplate a landscape conversion, there are a myriad of opportunities for things to go astray in technical terms, so any program that embarks on this lofty goal of converting on a large scale turf areas to sustainable landscaping will require extensive technical support,” he said.
“Fundamentally what I want to underscore is that associated with our brand is a promise – a value proposition,” he said. “A water smart landscape is an upgrade, not a compromise, so we’re committed to helping people succeed. If they will follow our advice: we have how-to resources in the form of detailed guides to help them organize their turf conversion project, we have homeowner education courses, and we hold Water Smart Landscape Makeover workshops where the participants that go through it, by the conclusion of the program, they have in hand an executable conceptual plan for their landscape upgrade.”
“We offer a variety of financial incentives, so many of those are available through the Metropolitan Water District, and we do supplement with programs that we administer regionally,” he added.
Mr. Michelon then presented a slide of the market transformation process. “It’s a long-term commitment; there are a lot of things you have to do to be successful in introducing a new standard,” he said. “It begins by developing by some objective guidelines, telling them what you want them to do, and deploying the education and professional training necessary to get people on board. Technical assistance in the form of design coaching and other services like our free residential surveys and landscape audits helps customers baseline their water consumption and see the possibilities. And throughout the process, we are providing these financial incentives.”
“At some point, you reach that tipping point when regulations come on the scene, such as we’re seeing in California with the drought, and so the marketplace changes radically,” he said. “That’s the point where we need to rethink our incentives, recalibrate them, and really shift towards what is that next generation of new water efficiency standards that we’re going to move toward and that we want to put all our resources behind. In our opinion, that is sustainable landscaping.”
Mr. Michelon said they are focusing on landscapes because studies in the service area show the majority of residential water consumption is for outdoor uses; the proportion generally holds true statewide. “California has a huge water footprint with its landscapes,” he pointed out. “There is excessive reliance on turf as an infill material in medians, parkways, and front yards, and turf has a huge water footprint. This is compounded by the fact that irrigation systems are typically notoriously inefficient. These are endemic problems, whether its poor design or whether its outdated technology, you see an obscene amount of runoff.”
“Our program has a strong technical underpinning and we can convert these situations into numerical targets,” he said, presenting a bar graph of evapotranspiration and noting that the amount in green is the amount of water in inches per year necessary to sustain turf in San Diego’s climate. “On top of that, the excess irrigation which is charitably called management in this slide – that’s water waste and we’re committed to stamping that out. There are better ways to accomplish irrigation.”
Mr. Michelon pointed out that the San Diego region receives about 10 inches of rainfall annually. “It’s high time we start using that rainfall as a resource instead of just shunting it into the storm drains.”
The programs are aligned to the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, he said. “There are four principle drivers that determine a given landscape’s water use: size of the area, the microclimate, the irrigation efficiency, and the plant palette.”
The San Diego County Water Authority’s service area comprises four climate zones, according to the California Irrigation Management Information System. “So you can have identical properties, one located in a coastal community like Oceanside and another one located inland such as Ramona, and it’s going to range from 33 inches a year to 55 inches, just in terms of the plant needs.”
“We have to add to this the irrigation inefficiencies, so I want to challenge you, the next time you look at a landscape area, just at a turf area, just pause for a moment and consider that you’re roughly looking at the equivalent of a swimming pool, that’s how much water it takes to sustain these areas in a year,” he said.
Mr. Michelon advised that when designing a program, there are critical considerations when it comes to defining the project area. “We learned that the hard way,” he said. “You can’t teach the general public to draw technical drawings, so we send out our technical people to professionally measure the landscape area that’s going to participate in our program. This is a critically important technical piece, because it provides a canvas on which these participants can then draw their masterpiece of what their Water Smart landscape is going to look like.”
When it comes to plants, it’s really about ‘out with the old, in with the new,’ he said. “Where turf is being used for recreational purpose, we want to keep that – that’s a high value water use,” he said. “But where it’s just an infill material, there’s a better way to beautiful, so we want to take out that ornamental turf and replace it with these attractive, colorful climate-appropriate plants that have low water use.”
Mr. Michelon emphasized that to make this transition, it requires a lot of technical support. “There are infinite opportunities for participants to get lost,” he said. “They need some guidance on putting some of these plants together with what’s commercially available, so guides like our “Nifty 50” brochure provide an orientation as to commercially available bullet-proof plants, what’s really resilient and is likely to take in your landscape.”
“Changing the plant palette doesn’t immediately save water,” he said. “That’s because the water is governed by the irrigation system, so it creates a water savings potential. To realize that potential, you need to address the irrigation system as well. … There are much more efficient technologies, be it rotary nozzles, be it drip irrigation, generally low pressure, low volume systems, and that’s what we have to upgrade alongside our plant palette.”
He then presented a case example that is featured in the Water Authority’s award-winning Homeowner’s Guide to Water Smart Landscapes. “We look to our landscapes to do double duty – they still have to meet a high aesthetic bar, they have to also deliver environmental benefits, and chief among these is water savings for us, so administratively, we offer $1.50 per square foot to both residential and commercial customers,” Mr. Michelon said. “We have caps in place – a maximum amount of incentive that we will pay out on a project. Our philosophy is that we want to teach people how to fish so that they can go on, and once they learn our water smart ways, they can apply to that to their entire parcel, but we’re not here to bankroll their entire turf conversion project.”
Program criteria include a requirement that there must be existing turf and an in-ground operational irrigation system; incentives are paid based on measured landscape area; we collect receipts and verify eligible costs; and we pay only for materials but not for labor, he said. “The California Invasive Plant Species Database is a great resource to help screen out invasive plants as we don’t want those in our water-smart landscapes, and for parties that are interested in artificial turf, there’s a different program to promote artificial turf, separate from this.”
Drought has increased demand exponentially, similar to what has happened with the program at Metropolitan, he said. “It really takes off in earnest right about April, May and by the holidays back in December 2014, we had exhausted our available funding,” he said. “This represents about a million and a half dollars in incentive money.”
They did make administrative changes to streamline the process to try to keep up with demand, such as eliminating some of the requirements. He also noted that they’ve exhausted their grant funding and are actively writing new grants.
The market transformation requires a long term commitment. “I have the privilege of working for an agency that has well over a decade invested in nurturing this market transformation process,” he said. “It began with a series of regional water conservation summits where we had consensus input from our stakeholders on the values of a water smart landscape – everything from the technical requirements we should see to what we could call it. We have various organizations we have been working with, such as our member agencies, various industry associations, community colleges, and botanic gardens.”’
In terms of financial considerations, cost effectiveness is paramount to any board. “I want to put in perspective some of the numbers,” he said. “Metropolitan Water District is presently working with $450 million towards conservation. As Metropolitan’s largest member agency, the Water Authority pays about .25 to the dollar that is spent in Bill’s program, so we’re already directly funding over $100 million in cash incentives through those programs.”
“Our Board has directed staff to leverage additional partnerships and to leverage grant funding in particular, so that we can work on those strategic pilot programs to raise the bar and to introduce the next standard of efficiency,” he said. “The idea about keeping tabs on various financial aspects of your program run the gamut of calibrating what rebate amount you’re going to set for your incentive and establishing cost controls such as measuring the landscape area and collecting receipts to monitoring the marketplace to identify when have you reached that tipping point where you either want to tweak your incentive to better match the available resources or altogether shift to a higher standard and rework the program. We think we’re there; we’re looking toward sustainable landscaping as that next generation.”
Mr. Michelon said that based on early data from Metropolitan, turf removal ranks among the highest unit cost measures when it comes to conservation programs. “Some of the lessons learned by monitoring what our participants do, the majority overestimate their turf areas, and if we were to pay on the self-reported data, we would have overpaid $300,000, so by paying on the basis of measured landscape area, that’s $300,000 or roughly 20% of our available rebate fund that went to other projects.”
He said he has a slightly different view on the applicability of turf replacement as a near-term drought response measure due to the Water Board’s laying down the law and all utilities racing against the clock. “There is some very strict targets that have been established and we have to meet those by February of 2016, so when you consider the time involved in the application process and the processing and qualification of these participants, and ultimately the issuance of rebates; and … there’s an establishment period with these plants, and during that establishment period, these plants will require watering on par with turf; they are basically all high-water users until they go through at least one growing season to establish.”
“So while we’re convinced there are very significant savings with turf conversion, they are not immediate or overnight and there are superior, less cost intensive alternatives to get us to meet that February target, such as regulations,” he continued. “We have several of these in place and should the drought continue, we might contemplate something like just paying people outright to fallow their turf with a very important provision that they do irrigate their trees, which are the highest value asset in the landscape.”
A recent report published by the California Urban Water Conservation Council warns of the ‘uglification’ effect. “When you get the marketplace chasing after the turf rebate in a very compressed, very short time frame without assimilating the best practices and without investing in the proper design, that’s a lot of money for little value. This is an example of something that would not eligible for our program in San Diego County.”
“Rather, I want to contrast with rather the ideal participant,” he said. “They signed up for our water smart landscape makeover workshops. That program requires participants to identify a small area, one zone of turf that they want to convert, in this case roughly 600 square feet. They then applied what they learned through the makeover workshops to their entire landscape, more than tenfold that area. Because of the available rebates, they cashed in on the incentives through both Metropolitan and our program, but this really strongly validates what we’re doing with our program in San Diego County. We wanted to teach people to be informed consumers, learn the basics, and then we’re confident that they are going to apply that to their entire landscape.”
He then presented some example slides from throughout their service area. “The water smart way puts a premium on beauty and environmental friendliness,” he said. “You can see that this is catching on throughout our region.”
Mr. Michelon said the future direction lies in sustainable landscaping. “We’ve worked very closely with the California Urban Water Conservation Council to envision a long-term approach to sustainable landscaping in California,” he said. “Presently we’re working on this market transformation framework, so I invite you to get acquainted with it; it’s a terrific resource. If you’re in California, by all means, get involved.”
“Fundamentally, it’s a watershed based approach,” he said. “It has the promise of multiple benefits well beyond water efficiency. Consider that when we revise our standards, instead of just doing rock gardens, we can enhance a landscape so that it intercepts and retains a substantial amount of the rainfall that occurs and that’s going to help our watershed protection efforts. We partner with energy utilities like SDG&E; we have embedded energy savings and green waste reduction as you have plants that produce less biomass.”
“My parting thoughts are if you are keen on producing near-term drought response results, you might want beyond turf replacement to regulations and to things that are less cost intensive and less time intensive,” he said. “Turf conversion is really a long-term market transformation initiative. And finally, embrace this watershed based approach to sustainable landscaping.”
KENT SOVOCOOL, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Kent Sovocool is a senior conservation research analyst with Southern Nevada Water Authority. Kent’s team does conservation studies and research, including analyses of customer usage and perspective conservation techniques.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is the regional wholesaler for southern Nevada, and they administer a water efficient landscapes program as well as other conservation incentive programs.
Kent Sovocool began by noting that out in the west, particularly in his service area, as much as 70% of water use in single family homes is used outdoors. “Much of that goes to irrigation of turf grass and while a lot of that is effective, certainly a significant fraction is wasted as well,” he said.
There is an interesting local water resource dynamic that results in placing a further premium on that outdoor water uses, said Mr. Sovocool. “We withdraw from the Colorado River via Lake Mead and at the community level, some 40% of that goes to indoor uses,” he said. “Now that fraction is collected, treated, and returned via the sanitary sewer, except in direct reuse where we clean up a portion of that water and put it on golf courses. We get return flow credit for water used indoors and returns, which then negates the resource impact of those withdrawals. So essentially, if you invented something that saved 5 gallons indoors, you would really decrease our credits 5 gallons on the other side, and theoretically, if they were only non-consumptive uses, we would have a virtually limitless supply in this dynamic.”
Outdoor uses represent approximately 60% of their water deliveries and are truly consumptive and thus impact their modest Colorado River allocation of 300,000 acre-feet, so outdoor use reduction is the highest priority, he said.
He then presented a pie chart showing relative use by section, noting that this is similar as for other cities in that the residential sectors that use most of the water, with respect to the other users. “The resort sector is actually relatively modest,” he said. “Indeed, we don’t think even half of that goes to consumptive use, so it’s actual resource impact to us is only in the order of 3 to 4 percent of our withdrawals that are actually being consumed. We also think almost all of that goes to cooling in practice, despite the water features you might see – some like the Bellagio aren’t even on public supply. It’s irrigation of residential landscapes which represent our largest total consumptive use.”
Mr. Sovocool noted that the Colorado River, their primary water source, continues to suffer the effects of the drought. “Potential climate change impacts in the basin are a serious concern and something that our organization has put a lot of thought and resources to address,” he said. “While the future is better considered in probability terms rather than blanket statements, we tend to believe it’s best to pursue aggressive conservation as we also pursue a number of initiatives to assure access to supply as well as diversify our water resources portfolio.”
He also noted that while the focus of the webinar is the turf replacement program, and while incentive programs have been an important part of their success, there are additional tools and interactions that contribute to that, such as water prices.
He then presented a slide of the organizational structure of the program, noting that it is made up of three teams. The conservation manager oversees the program and ultimately approves all the incentives; the rebates have multiple redundancies and levels to ensure the integrity of the financial awards for incentives. The single family residential team handles the largest sector; their work is best characterized as a lot of small projects to get to large numbers of square feet. They have to be able to process large numbers of clients in an efficient and a production-oriented manner with consistency and quality control. The multi-family, industrial, and green industry team handles far fewer clients but they are larger, sometimes quite large projects so there is more client staff interaction and even hand holding with their clientele. The conservation knowledge and support team is responsible for tracking the savings.
He then reviewed some of the work of the Conservation Knowledge and Support Team analyzing the program’s savings, beginning with the Southern Nevada Water Authority Xeriscape Conversion Study which explored the actual water savings between lawns and a water smart landscape.
“Among a number of the things we did in that study, we actually submetered discrete portions of several hundred landscapes in Southern Nevada so we could discover what the actual use intensities on a per unit area basis,” he said. “As you can see they are quite a bit higher for lawns than for water smart landscape, not exactly a surprise, but this data is very helpful for calculating savings and the difference between these two styles of landscaping. We calculated 55.8 gallons per square foot for savings; it is very dependable number as statistics go … Indeed, it’s such a strong effect that we now know today that we really didn’t need to submeter because this 55.8 gallons shows up prominently on main meter pre and post analyses.”
He then presented a slide showing the water use distributed across the months of the year, noting that water smart landscapes also reduce the summer spike in water use as well.
“In this study, we observed a 30% reduction in use associated with the typical conversion which was often the front yard which is certainly in the same range as what other studies have demonstrated at other utilities,” said Mr. Sovocool. “We see that the savings was realized pretty much immediately in our area at least, and it appears to be sustained into the future. Water smart landscape conversion project is a significant undertaking for most customers, and people generally don’t take go back. Recidivism rates are well under 1% for landscape conversions.”
He then turned to their program. “Our water smart landscapes program is about reducing the amount of non-functional turf grass and replacing it with water-efficient landscaping,” he said. “We say that if the only time you use an area of grass is when you mow it, then it probably is not functional. We also are not about creating so-called ‘zero-scapes’ devoid of living landscaping and with potential negative environmental consequences, nor are we interested in getting rid of all the turf grass at a given home location. Lawns certainly have their place in play and recreational areas, both at home and in the public areas, but there are better choices, particularly for ornamental landscaping.”
For customers in single-family homes, the majority apply on online. There are internal processing steps, and then a pre-conversion site visit is set up to ensure that the customer qualifies for the program. The application is a one-page document. “We tried to avoid unnecessary barriers to participation,” he said. “Carlos mentioned things like classes or submission of diagrams by the customers – that’s probably asking a lot with minimal additional benefit.”
At the site visit, they confirm that turf is present and explain the program conditions. The turf is measured and the customer is given 6 months to complete the project; the project is implemented by the customer, with the aid of a contracted landscaper. Although the Southern Nevada Water Authority can’t recommend contractors, they do have a program called Water Smart Contractor where contractors take classes to assure they are knowledgeable in the requirements and best practices for Water Smart Landscape installations.
Once the landscape has been converted, there is a post-conversion visit to assure all the major program conditions were met, the most critical being assuring that only a micro-irrigation system has been installed, that there is no spray, and that it’s at the appropriate pressure.
“We want to allow the landscape to breathe and have water percolation,” he said. “The canopy coverage requirement, which is sufficient planting installed to ensure 50% canopy coverage, is there to assure that the landscape provides for the myriad environmental and aesthetic services that regionally appropriate plants can provide.”
He noted that artificial turf is treated as a mulch, not as an alternative water efficient landscape planting. “You still need living plant cover to qualify for the rebate,” he said.
The multi-family, commercial, and industrial team process is very similar to that of the single-family homes, but there are some differences, he said. They don’t have the same volume of applicants, so there is coordinator-level staff that meets on-site with the point of contact. “Assuring a strong relationship with those points of contact is really key to getting those immense CIGI projects done,” he said.
The site visits are similar to single-family homes also documenting and totaling up the areas for a project of this size is a larger undertaking. Post-site work is similar to single-family work, with both teams having back office quality control processes as well as a rebate tracking and control system. “We take assuring the integrity of that incentive process very seriously,” he said.
Mr. Sovocool then turned to the barriers that they encountered and how they overcame them, noting that in a large conversion program, there are a lot of moving parts to facilitating the landscape conversions.
Initially when the program launched, they faced customer apathy as well as ignorance over their water use; there were those that didn’t want to change their landscape for reasons ranging from the perfectly understandable to the ludicrous, he said. “At the community level, we wiped out that by and large by education and more appropriate water pricing and incentive levels, but also by bringing a new perspective. That’s where I imagine staff forever are always going to have to parrot those explanations and have those challenges.”
The technical provisions for the program were worked out in the early 2000s, and during the downtown, they were able to address that by using some bond funds. “Thinning enrollment after peak conversion is something we’re working on today,” he said.
Although we would have never asked for it, the drought has done an enormous service to us by galvanizing our community around conservation, he said. “Drought response touches so many parts of us in ways that I can’t possibly relay, but understand that for conservation, it helped everyone from Doug and I all the way up to the executive leadership of this organization at the time be able to go out in the community and effect some of the changes we needed to make for long term sustainability, as well as short-term demand reductions.”
During the early 2000s, the budget and throughput swelled to meet demand, and in 2003, the incentive was raised to $1 a square foot. “We kept raising incentives, at one point hitting $2 per square foot, and we made changes to the caps and thresholds as well. At our peak, our budget for customer rebates alone with the water smart landscapes program topped $43 million. We had about 15 employees working in our division at that time, and in our peak conversion year, we freed up an additional 1.9 billion gallons in water from landscape conversions.”
Funding for the conversion incentives has varied greatly overtime. The first initiative was supported in part by funding from the Bureau of Reclamation, and was 45 cents a square foot. For a time, they were able to use both basic operating funds and new connection charges. “The thinking there is that both should pay for growth in providing funds needed to help support conservation efforts in general.”
“The current version of the program is somewhat unique in that it relies on bond funds, and for these we actually have a requirement to maintain the landscape in perpetuity, thus the easement,” he said. “Our bond counsel determined we can use bond funds but we have to encumber the landscape areas of the conversion, somewhat analogous to how you would encumber a water treatment plant when you use bond funds to make a capital improvement. For this it means maintaining a conversion area of a property in certain non-water using capacities. So our easement funds with the land in perpetuity regardless of ownership changes; it can however be modified or even waived by returning the funds and paying fees and interest. So hopefully though, most people will simply install any additional changes to the landscape in areas that are not in the conversion area.”
He then showed an example, starting with a slide showing a lawn taking up a portion of the back yard, and then a second slide after the conversion. “This is what’s recorded; the conservation easement drawing and easement areas identified in which no grass, no sprinklers, no open water can exist in perpetuity. If there is a change in the owner and the owner has young kids and wants to put in a pool and even some grass, they could still do that but not in the conversion area. So that’s basically it, the conversion area is sustained in perpetuity as the non-water surface, non-grass area.”
In terms of enrollment, Mr. Sovocool said that they are no longer at peak enrollment, although enrollment levels continue to stay strong relative to before the drought. “It’s important to note where we are in the natural life of the conversion program,” he said.
“Our mission is to save water and the way we do that is to convert non-functional turf – not all turf,” he said. “First, we seemed to face this dynamic where for every home we were converting, 28 were being built, most of those with front yard turf grass, so we essentially prohibited front yard turf grass in 2003 as part of our landscape provisions.”
The ‘practically convertible’ turf grass pool began to shrink at the time the program was shifting into high gear. “By 2013, we had essentially eaten through over half of the grass that was essentially available,” Mr. Sovocool said.
“Practically convertible acreage is defined at the sector level,” he clarified. “As for single-family, we consider all front yards convertible; for golf courses, obviously the only out of play areas is used for really for selling homes is convertible, so getting out the first 55% of our grass is probably going to be easier than getting out that last 45% of practically convertible turf grass. It’s going to take some time and some additional funds to be able to get to that point. We’re going to have to start reaching higher for that higher fruit on the tree.”
“First, we have the ability to assess in an automatic way the amount of turfgrass and the amount of planting of other landscape types by aerial imagery to some extent,” he said. “We can use that to increase our response rate; by better targeting our mailers, for example, we increased our response rate by 300%. We’re trying even more customized targeting now in the research capacity where we’re identifying good candidates not just for water smart landscapes, but for any number of other conservation initiatives.”
In terms of the economics, in the single-family sector alone, just the water savings alone are not enough of a driving factor to facilitate conversions, Mr. Sovocool said. “What you see is when you get above about 60% of the landscape in one type or another, especially with respect to water smart landscapes, they start to realize some real reductions in both monthly maintenance time and direct annual expenditures.”
Using that, they built models of four general archetypes that people face when doing a conversion. “What we found was that there are different situations that a homeowner might face in a conversion project and you have to think about the economics of all of those,” he said. “The first example is a situation where the homeowner only incurred material costs of the conversion, particularly by doing it themselves. They were further able to realize real labor cost reduction, because they were able to avoid paying someone to mow it, and a lot of times they’ve reduced their own time. In this situation, there’s probably not even a need for the incentive as payback time is quite short in this scenario.”
Another common situation is when the homeowner paid to have the conversion done by a landscape contractor, and they weren’t able to realize any reduction in labor and maintenance cost. “It’s the hardest situation to overcome. Here the incentive would be needed to have the return on investment shortened to something conventionally acceptable if that is what indeed delineates whether or not someone is going to do the project.”
He noted that these are 2004 dollars; in today’s market prices, it works out to about $2.81 per square foot for a three year return on investment, and about $1.69 for a five year return on investment. “Remember these are averages,” he said. “I don’t know that the single family homeowner does this level of detail, but these are things that are rattling around in the back of their mind and it’s still relevant considering the ability for the incentive for the conversion project to actually take place.”
Mr. Sovocool said it’s different for the commercial sector. “These customers get no ability to recognize an economic labor maintenance offset,” he said. “They are paying a firm to provide at least monthly maintenance, no matter what and the price is pretty much fixed. All the economic benefit is from the water savings. And businesses really do the ROI calculation and I think most importantly, economies of scale come into play in a very big way, and I think it leads into some of what we’ve seen at a number of utilities here.”
He presented a graph of averages, noting that it’s from 2007. “Any one situation can be different but what we found based on average costs of conversion and the water savings, once you get down to conversion base sizes that are similar to the single family sector, we find that we see a strong profit in the cost per square foot due to economies of scale,” he said.
He noted that the effective cost on a per-square-foot basis is on the y axis and the square footage range is on the x axis. “What we find is the incentive is very important considering the economic viability of the project,” he said. “You see again that there’s a very strong economy of scale impact and that price drops very rapidly as you go up into those higher square footage levels.”
In the 2007 study, the average square footage matched the five year ROI line for the commercial properties. “It suggests that the incentive plays a very critical role in determining the minimal square footage needed to make that conversion viable for these types of properties,” he said. “A smaller incentive means you can have many more smaller projects and many more smaller customers can effectively participate.”
The largest conversions, which are on the far-right of the graph, may not have many possible customers, but the return on investment is near instantaneous, he said. “What we see is that the effective cost to the business and the time to return investment with these incentive levels is very close to 0,” he said. “Those types of customers include multi-family properties, usually HOAs, and especially golf courses, it makes it very lucrative and these folks are generally going to flock to the program quickly. That’s why we’ve developed these caps and thresholds – to reduce the amount that customers can receive in a fiscal year and of course to protect the stability of the program and allow for equity and access.”
“We have a large program and we’ve been very successful and we’re committed to its continued success,” Mr. Sovocool concluded.