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FAQ: what you need to know about wrangling lawn rebates in Southern California

Crested cacti are drought-tolerant, and visually striking.
Crested cacti are drought-tolerant, and visually striking.
Bill Gracey/Flickr
Crested cacti are drought-tolerant, and visually striking.
Pineapple Guava Blossoms are drought-tolerant shrubs that have edible flowers and fruits.
Bill Gracey/Flickr

We reported on the news that LADWP upped its rebate last week. Cash-for-grass programs like this aren't new. Still, it seems like a good time to recap how they work, since there's money out there in other communities besides L.A., too. 

Why do water utilities care if I rip out my grass, anyway?

Two reasons: one, your lawn is thirsty. Outdoor landscaping generally accounts for about 60 percent of water use in Southern California; sometimes that figure goes as high as 70 percent.  And two, southern California in general has less water than it needs. Agencies already import water from other places, whose own supplies are imperiled by climate change and other environmental considerations. Just about everyone’s trying to conserve.

What do I have to do to get money?

Different cities have different specific qualifications. Generally, you have to submit proof that you’ve replaced your lawn with less thirsty landscaping. In Los Angeles, the DWP makes you pre-qualify for the rebate by applying on line; customers have to include a picture of their lawn, so the DWP knows you don’t just have a dead patch of dirt that you’re NOT watering now. Pasadena wants proof to that effect, too.

Basically, the easiest thing to do is go to the regional rebate site and enter your address to see if you qualify.

If you don’t qualify, that site won’t explain why. The next step would be to locate your local water agency. (The wholesaler membership organization, the Metropolitan Water District, has lists of local agencies for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and other regional agencies. Or you can look at your water bill.)

You can also call the SoCal WaterSmart hotline: 1-888-376-3314.                    

What kind of money can I get?

L.A.’s new rebate amount is $2  a square foot, a 33 percent increase from the original amount. Other places pay $1 a square foot, including Pasadena. At present, Pasadena Water and Power is not paying anything, because the program filled up; it’s reopening in August. 

Often there’s a cap, so that in Pasadena, you can’t get more than $2500. Burbank pays $1 a square foot, and caps the total rebate at $1000. The general idea, according to water managers, is to get as many people in on the program as possible.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County offers $1-a-square-foot rebates too, and advises that OC residents should check with their local water providers for any incremental rebates above that. 

All of these rebates have fine print, including the caveat that they're good while funding lasts.  

Who pays the most?

Long Beach is proud to tell you that it does. Matthew Veeh of Long Beach’s Water Department wrote in to let me know that his city offered more than L.A. Until a couple of months ago, the amount was $2.50 a square foot, which he calls “the highest of its kind in the nation.” But now, Veeh crows, Long Beach is still paying the most in the nation; it’s just upped that amount to $3 a square foot.

(The water departments of Long Beach and Los Angeles have a somewhat healthy rivalry, by the way. I don’t know whether other water districts have gentlemanly brawls, but I’m eager to find out.)

How can I find out which drought-tolerant landscaping is acceptable?

The Metropolitan Water District and “the family of southern California water agencies” have a site where California Friendly ® retailers, plants, gardening classes and other resources for your garden get a special section

Full requirements for the DWP are complicated. Cities including Pasadena, Glendale, Tustin, and Irvine Ranch have codes and restrictions for landscaping that all new drought-tolerant yards must meet. 

What's interesting about approved California Friendly ® plants is that they're more diverse than you think. It's not just gravel and a lone cactus. 

Where do I have to live to get in on the cash for grass scheme? Do any cities opt out?

You’ll want to check with your city’s water utility (some places have more than one). Twenty-six agencies that buy water from the Metropolitan Water District participate in the rebate program called “SoCal WaterSmart” – smaller agencies send you directly to this site, to estimate your  rebate and send in your paperwork. 

Los Angeles and Fullerton allow you to “pre-reserve” your rebate – so that you can qualify, get your work done, and be confident that the money will be there for you when you come back with the costs in hand. 

Then there’s Glendale.

What’s up with Glendale?

Glendale’s city council really doesn’t like artificial turf in front yards. You can have artificial turf at a Glendale school. You can have artificial turf in a Glendale back yard. But if you have it in the front yard, you may face criminal charges.

None of this information is clearly spelled out on the Glendale Water & Power website

Glendale’s opponents of front-yard turf have said that turf can cause lead poisoning, that turf is made from petroleum-based chemicals, and that turf can heat up unnaturally, creating a heat island. All of these concerns are real, but that doesn’t explain why turf is still okay in some places in the city. Read Glendale’s landscaping ordinance for more. 

Glendale is not alone in its distaste for artificial turf. Pasadena doesn't permit it as a turf replacement option

How much lawn are rebate programs like these going to eliminate?

Nobody’s got all the math on that yet. Some utilities are reporting numbers. For example, Long Beach says it expects to reach its 1000th replaced lawn this year. As we reported,  L.A.'s DWP says around 850 customers have replaced 1.5 million square feet of lawn so far.