CAL MATTERS: California lawmakers move to ban irrigation of some decorative lawns

The irrigation bill, which aims to force businesses and institutions to remove their lawns, now goes to the governor.

by Rachel Becker, CalMatters. Stay up-to-date with free briefings on topics that matter to all Californians. Subscribe to CalMatters today for nonprofit news in your inbox.

California businesses and institutions will have to stop irrigating decorative grassy areas with drinkable water under legislation approved by state lawmakers.

The bill now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. Newsom’s office declined to comment today, but he previously called for an irrigation ban that led to a similar emergency measure that’s in effect until next June.

Authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Burbank, the legislation would ban use of potable water — water that is safe to drink — to irrigate ornamental lawns or grasses at businesses, institutions, industrial facilities and certain developments. The grass could only be irrigated with recycled water.

The aim of the legislation is to force businesses to tear out their lawns and replace them with landscapes that use much less water.

Residential yards would not be included in the ban, and neither would cemeteries, parks, golf courses and sports fields where people play, picnic and gather. Other plants like shrubs, flowers, trees, and landscapes irrigated with recycled water are also unaffected.

The ban would roll out in stages, starting in 2027 with government properties, and in 2028 for other institutional, commercial and industrial properties. Common areas of developments like homeowners associations, mobile home parks and some retirement communities would have until 2029.

The bill, AB 1572, passed the Senate 29 to 10 on Monday with no debate, and the final amendments cleared the Assembly 55 to 18 on Tuesday. The final 28 votes in both houses against the bill this week were nearly all Republicans, with only two Democrats rejecting it.

If the legislation is signed by Newsom, California would follow on the heels of Nevada, where lawmakers barred the use of Colorado River water for irrigating nonfunctional grass in Southern Nevada at certain commercial, multi-family, government and other properties.

Jointly sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the bill enjoyed far more support than opposition — unusual for a bill dealing with the parched state’s most precious resource.

Opposition, Friedman said, “hasn’t been fierce.”

“I haven’t had anyone I know in Los Angeles call me with concerns. I haven’t had any property owners reach out,” she said. “They’re all like, ‘Yeah, fine, we’re already doing this — already starting to move in this direction.’”

As of Sept. 1, the California Business Roundtable, California Landscape Contractors Association, the Community Associations Institute California Legislative Action Committee, and the Santa Margarita Water District were listed as opposition.

In response to an executive order that Newsom issued during the most recent drought, the State Water Board starting in June 2022 banned use of drinkable water to irrigate ornamental grass at commercial, industrial and institutional facilities. The ban was extended through June 2024 unless the board renews or rescinds it before then.

The board also is developing new water conservation rules that would require urban water suppliers to ban the irrigation of non-functional turf with drinking water starting in 2025, spokesperson Edward Ortiz told CalMatters.

 “I think it’s going to be hard to have a giant lawn that no one uses and continue to water it … You’re going to stand out, and not in a good way.”

Matt Keller, Santa Clara Valley Water District

Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association, said  the bill is unnecessary because of the state’s emergency drought measure.

Giarde said she is concerned that people will replace grass with rocks or other hardscaping, “and that creates heat islands,” she said. Grass, she added, “has its place. Just if people would stop over-watering it, that would be really great.”

Matt Keller, spokesperson for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves approximately 2 million people in the heart of Silicon Valley, said he expects the bill to ramp up pressure on businesses to remove lawns.

Since June 2022, the district has received more than 100 reports from community members about businesses that have failed to comply.

“That kind of peer pressure is powerful,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard to have a giant lawn that no one uses and continue to water it … You’re going to stand out, and not in a good way.”

The problem with ‘turf’

Lawns, known by landscapers as “turf,” are thirsty, drinking up more water than any other vegetation analyzed in California, according to a state report.

The Pacific Institute, a global water think-tank, estimates that tearing out grass and replacing it with less water-demanding plants would reduce water use across California by about 1 million to 1.5 million acre-feet per year, enough to supply about 4.5 million households. About 400,000 acre-feet of conservation a year could be squeezed out of businesses, institutions and industrial facilities, the report says.

The massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a major water importer and a sponsor of the bill, estimated that tearing out non-residential decorative grass across all of Southern California would save about 300,000 acre-feet per year — enough to serve about 900,000 households.

Under the bill, property owners designate which lawns are considered “functional,” and local water systems and governments would be tasked with enforcement.

The ban would roll out in stages, starting in 2027 with government properties, and in 2028 for other institutional, commercial and industrial properties.

The State Water Resources Control Board, in certain circumstances, can give three-year extensions if necessary. And state-designated disadvantaged communities don’t have to comply until 2031 or when they receive state funding, whichever comes sooner.

Owners of especially large properties must certify to the state every three years that they’re meeting the requirements starting in 2030 or 2031.

Whether California’s current temporary ban has actually reduced irrigation at businesses isn’t clear. Local water suppliers and municipalities are tasked with enforcement, and they are not required to report progress to the state.

Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water supply think tank, said her sense is that awareness of the current ban and compliance with it have been “relatively low.”

She said she expects to see more durable changes under the bill’s longer deadlines and certification requirements for larger property owners.

“I think the legislation is really oriented towards transforming our landscapes, rather than just an emergency,” Cooley said. “It does mean that when we do have a drought, there’s not as much pressure than to reduce usage because our supplies are in better shape.”

Nonfunctional grass: ‘You know it when you see it’

Charles Bohlig, water conservation supervisor at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, one of the state’s largest water providers, said it’s difficult to tease apart the conservation impacts of any one measure like the state’s temporary irrigation ban for ornamental grass.

Another challenge for the East Bay district under the new legislation will be identifying all the nonfunctional grass across its 322 square mile service area.

Bohlig said the district is investigating using satellite imagery, which it already uses to measure large landscapes and provide irrigation advice to customers based on weather and evaporation. However, smaller, irregular grassy patches in front of businesses could be harder to spot from above. And identifying grass as functional or nonfunctional will take extra coordination with customers and communities.

For nonfunctional grass, “you know it when you see it,” Bohlig said.

“Our feeling is if you’re only on it when you mow it, it’s clearly not a piece of functional turf that needs to be maintained as such,” added his East Bay district colleague, Andrea Pook.

The new legislation would help districts work with customers on making those landscapes less thirsty. “Like, here’s particular legislation that’s now the law of the land. How can we work together to help convert your landscape into a native garden and protect your trees at the same time?” Bohlig said.

For some, prolonged droughts and landscaping rebates have offered more incentive to tear out grass than the current, temporary irrigation ban.

Many water suppliers like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, East Bay Municipal Utility District, the city of Long Beach and Valley Water offer customers rebates for tearing out lawns. The state of California currently does not.

But overhauling landscapes is pricey for businesses and institutions.

Converting grass to less water intensive plants costs about $10 a square foot, according to the Metropolitan Water District.

“Our feeling is if you’re only on it when you mow it, it’s clearly not a piece of functional turf that needs to be maintained as such.”

Andrea Pook, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Alameda recently spent about $204,000 tearing out 6,500 square feet of grass outside its city hall and replacing it with native and other low-water plants. Public Works director Erin Smith said the city expects a $7,000 rebate from the East Bay district.

An even larger, 29,000 square foot project is set to begin at Alameda’s City Hall West in October, expected to cost around $462,000. Smith said she’s hoping for a $15,000 rebate, and she expects to eventually see the city’s water bills drop across the two sites by around $8,500.

“It is nice to know that return on investment is on the horizon. But given the cost of construction, it does take a number of years before you’re actually starting to see that,” she said.

Still, she said, the changes are already obvious. “The new landscape is rich with colors and textures.”

That’s also what Swanee Edwards loves most about the newly transformed landscaping at her retirement community, the Woodland Estates in Morgan Hill. The 72-year-old board member and resident said overhauling the lawns around their clubhouse was long overdue.

“Now we’re not getting nasty letters from the city saying you must have a huge leak somewhere,” Edwards said.

The retirement community tore up about 26,000 square feet of lawn and replaced it with crepe myrtle trees, roses and native plants at a cost of about $104,000, Edwards said. Woodland Estates received a rebate of more than $60,000 from Valley Water, some of which was shared with the city.

“It’s just beautiful, compared to what we had there before,” Edwards said. “The second favorite thing, of course, is the water we saved and that the water isn’t wasted, running down the gutters and into the streets.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email