Business & Economy

Drought: For these entrepreneurs, the drier it gets the more their businesses thrive

Leigh Jerrard, founder of Greywater Corps, explains to homeowner Lisa Mann various options for installing a greywater system to water her backyard.
Leigh Jerrard, founder of Greywater Corps, explains to homeowner Lisa Mann various options for installing a greywater system to water her backyard.
Ben Bergman/KPCC
Leigh Jerrard, founder of Greywater Corps, explains to homeowner Lisa Mann various options for installing a greywater system to water her backyard.
California Cactus Center has been in business for 38 years, and business has never been as brisk as it is now.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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As state and local leaders work to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's mandated 25 percent cut in urban water use, they've told California residents to, first and foremost, cut back on watering the yard. 

Most local water districts, including L.A.'s Department of Water and Power, have, so far, limited their restrictions to outdoor water use. That's brought a wave of demand to local businesses who specialize in helping property owners use less outdoor water. 

Leigh Jerrard, the founder of Greywater Corps, installs residential graywater systems – which repurpose water from showers and laundry machines to water lawns.

When you call Jerrard, this is the message you get: "Note that we are overwhelmed with inquires right now, so it may be a while before we get back to you." 

Using graywater to conserve water is catching on now, but six years ago, when Jerrard started the company, few people were interested.

“Up until about a year ago, it was pretty slow," said Jerrard. "Things started to pick up, and last year was the first year we were solvent. Within the last month or two, the phone has been ringing off the hook. We've been getting a dozen or more inquiries a day, more than I can handle.”

In between interviewing to add another employee and a site visit in Altadena, Jerrard managed to squeeze in an initial consultation for Lisa Mann at her house in Pasadena on a recent morning.

Once he arrived, Jerrard dispensed practical advice, like what detergent to use (Trader Joe's liquid) and lectured Mann on the wastefulness of California water policies.

“We’re irrigating and simultaneously throwing away perfectly good water that could be used for irrigation,” he told Mann.

After an hour, Mann was converted.

“Sign me up," she told Jerrard. "We gotta do this.”

Watering with graywater will be more expensive and more complicated than Mann thought – but to her, it’s worth it.

“It seems like the drought never ends," she said. "It’s been here, and it doesn’t seem to be going away, so we need to find ways to landscape and to be more efficient with our house.”

Drought having minimal effect on economy — so far

The state is far from meeting Gov. Brown's 25 percent conservation goal — new state figures show Californians reduced their water consumption by only 3.6 percent in March and only 9 percent since last June.

A study from the consulting firm M. Cubed found that if the state eventually hits the target, California businesses will feel it. The study predicted that a 25 percent reduction in water use would result in as much as $700 million in lost economic activity.

In a letter to the state's water board this month, Valerie Nera from the California Chamber of Commerce wrote, "A water supply cut of 25 percent across the board to California’s commercial, industrial and institutional sectors will be difficult to achieve without severe economic dislocation."

Currently, agriculture is feeling the strain more than other industries. Farms lost more than 17,o00 seasonal and part-time jobs last year as farmers cut back their crops, according to a report from Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at UC Davis.

“There’s no question if you take half a million acres out of production, a lot of jobs go with it,” said Howitt.

But a post from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office put those farming job losses into context last month, predicting that the drought – as bad it’s gotten – won't have a significant effect on the state’s economy because only a small percentage of Californians work in agriculture – and an even smaller percentage of the state’s GDP comes from crops.

Offsetting the current loss of farm jobs is the  wave of growth in businesses that help homeowners cut back on lawn watering. Local water districts have fed that growth by keeping water restrictions limited to outdoor use and targeting outreach to residents.

Gayle Butensky started a drought-tolerant landscaping business five years ago called Bee's Bliss Gardening. “People have been doing this for years and years and years," Butensky said. "It’s just much more apparent now, because once one person does, the next person sees it.”

Butensky says neighbors see going native plant doesn’t mean sacrificing aesthetics. “It doesn’t have to look like a desert," she said. "It doesn’t have to look like rocks. It can look like a nice garden.”

All those native plants have to come from somewhere, which has made Pasadena's California Cactus Center a very popular shop these days. It’s been in Molly Thongthiraj’s family for 38 years.

“When we first started, it was not mainstream, but now it is," said Thongthiraj.

Thongthiraj says because of the drought, business has never been better, up 20 percent since last year.

“There’s always been a significant client base for people who were collectors of cactuses and succulents, but I think now it’s a necessity more than just someone who admires the plants for their looks,” said John Gayle, a sales specialist at California Cactus Center.

From three employees to 500 in 10 months

For years, California has incentivized residents to replace their grass with drought-tolerant plants by offering them a rebate to help pay for the cost of new landscaping. Last fall, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power upped its bounty to $3.75 on every square foot of grass that is removed.

No company has benefited more than Turf Terminators, which rips up grass yards and replaces them with a less thirsty landscape.

“Every time we think we’ve built the organization to a size where we think it’s going to meet demand, demand just sort of jumps up and we have to grow again,” said Julian Fox, the company's chief operating officer.

When Turf Terminators started just 10 months ago, it had three employees. Now it has more than 500.