Get Off the Lawn

A lush green lawn has a certain aesthetic appeal, there’s no denying that. If lawn was counted as a crop, however, it would be one of the nation’s biggest, but it is far from a critical need as far as water use. Yet, watering lawns accounts for nearly 40 percent – almost half – of residential water use in California.

Given the current drought and water supply pinch in the Golden State, homeowners with lawns should be able to decrease their outdoor water use by switching from grass to low-water use plants, or to little or no vegetation at all. A recently proposed bill in the California Assembly would help to give some homeowners a fuller range of options.

Many homeowners may consider turning to xeriscaping, or landscaping with rocks, native vegetation, and other drought-tolerant plants with very low water demand, or even using artificial turf. However, people in developments of single-family homes governed by homeowners associations (HOAs), and upwards of 25 percent of Californians live in such arrangements, may be prevented from ripping out lawns in favor of drought-adapted landscaping by the rules of their homeowner’s association.

Ironically, many homeowners associations require owners to install costly irrigation scheduling equipment to help avoid excess irrigation water use. It seems counterproductive, therefore, that HOAs can also prevent owners from taking steps to help eliminate the need for lawn irrigation in the first place.

A new bill, authored by Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), would change a section of the California civil code related to “common interest developments” to void prohibitions by homeowners associations against the use of low water-using plants. The bill would also ban HOAs from prohibiting or restricting compliance with the water conservation ordinances on landscaping implemented by local water districts.

Among supporters of the bill is southern California’s water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District, which this fall intends to kick off a $7 million “cash for grass” program to pay homeowners to remove water-hogging grassy lawns. A similar program in southern Nevada has resulted in water savings of 7.2 billion gallons of water a year, reducing the costs to the water utility associated with finding new sources of water.

Critics of the bill argue that it is likely unnecessary, as many HOAs are already considering a move towards more water-efficient landscaping strategies, and many have mechanisms for approving low-water-use landscapes that are consistent with the HOA’s architectural and aesthetic guidelines. Other critics charge that the bill amounts to micromanagement, with no distinct conservation advantages.

Some owners subject to HOA rules have indeed run into trouble with their associations over low-water landscaping. These situations could be isolated cases, but in times of water stress in the state, any homeowner should be able to take steps to decrease their residential water use.

The water agencies themselves are wisely planning rate hikes in response to tighter supply conditions. For their part, homeowners need the option to reduce outdoor water use through whatever means they see fit. In fact, homeowners outside of HOAs need these options as well.

Some municipalities still maintain restrictions on landscaping that make it difficult for homeowners to decrease outdoor water use without incurring major expense. Local governments also need to consider lifting landscaping regulations that contribute to high outdoor water use in residential developments. Those governments should also take stock of how much water they used to irrigate the lawns outside their offices. Conservation begins at home.

California’s water problem may be inconvenient but it can also teach important lessons. Unlike water, government regulations are not in short supply. New government regulations may be appropriate where they actually aid conservation and promote environmental benefits. But sometimes governments need to get out of the way.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top