LAUSD weighs switch from grass to artificial turf — and water's not the biggest factor

Los Angeles Unified is considering converting natural grass playing fields to artificial turf at more of its schools.
Los Angeles Unified is considering converting natural grass playing fields to artificial turf at more of its schools.
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About 200 playing fields at Los Angeles Unified School District middle and high schools could be converted from natural grass to artificial turf. Fifty-four of them have already gone through the change.

As top administrators consider whether to make the conversion at other campuses, however, water conservation is not the major factor driving their decisions.

“The key question is: how many people do we think are going to use it?” said Mark Hovatter, the head of LAUSD's facilities division. “If it’s for our purposes only, and we think the field is only going to get used four or five times, then we’re clearly better off going with natural grass.”

Natural grass fields can hold up over time when used about a half dozen times a week, Hovatter said, but artificial turf is more durable for more frequent use.

Most LAUSD middle and high school fields are in high demand each week; there’s a waiting list of outside groups, including sports leagues, that want to use public school fields during off-hours.

But replacing a natural grass field with artificial turf can cost up to $5 million, Hovatter said. So it would cost the school district over $500 million to convert 146 natural grass playing fields. Replacing the fields for wear-and-tear every 10 years would cost an additional $1 million for each field.

By comparison, it costs the school district about $250,000 to recondition a natural grass field each year, he said. That would total $36.5 million for 146 fields.

Based on cost alone, artificial turf for the 146 fields with one replacement after 10 years amounts to $730 million. Natural grass after the same period would pencil out to $365 million.

For artificial turf to make economic sense for the district, groups using the fields would need to contribute to its installation and maintenance. Hovatter said the question the district needs to ask is: “Do we have partners that are willing to pay a recapitalization cost so we can recover our actual cost?” 

The district is studying the cost effectiveness of natural versus artificial fields for each campus, he said.

As for the water savings, it turns out artificial fields aren't water-free.

“You do have to water it. You have to wash it. You have to cool it, because it gets to very excessive temperatures,” Hovatter said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for the state to reduce its water use by 25 percent, but Hovatter said without an exemption for school playing fields from the mandatory cutbacks fields wouldn't be available for outside groups such as summer sports leagues.

LAUSD's school board has already approved $5 million to replace toilets and urinals with more efficient versions to save water. But toilets are not the district's largest use of water, officials said. Rather grassy fields use the most water at school campuses.

CORRECTION:  A previous version of the story said L.A. Unified is seeking an exemption for playing fields. It is not. KPCC regrets the error.