Are Rebates and Smaller Water Bills Enough to Overcome Our Deep-Seated Preference for the Green Lawn?

Household water conservation efforts can take many forms: shorter showers, more efficient appliances, or installing smart sprinkler systems.  While these all make a difference, one of the more dramatic steps one can take to save water is to abandon that staple of suburban landscaping: the green lawn.

This summer, many water agencies increased the value of rebates for people who replace turf grass with lower-water alternatives.  The Metropolitan Water District’s SoCal WaterSmart rebate program offers its customers $2 for each square foot of turf replaced, up from $1/sq. ft.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which previously offered $3/sq. ft., recently changed its rebate structure to offer $3.75/sq. ft. for the first 1,500 square feet and $2/sq. ft. thereafter, with no cap.  Additional water districts across the Southwest, such as the Southern Nevada Water Authority, also offer rebates.

In California, the state government has gotten involved as well.  On September 28, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 2434 into law.  AB 2434, which was sponsored by Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez (D-LA), extends state income tax exemptions for water conservation rebates to turf removal rebates, and will be in effect from 2014-2019.

The rebate programs appear to be quite popular. At its December 9, 2014 meeting, the MWD Board of Directors approved a $40 million increase in funding for the turf removal program to keep pace with demand.   After the MWD doubled its rebate in May 2014, demand skyrocketed, with requests for rebates on 7.2 million square feet of turf on residential and commercial properties. By comparison, rebate requests in January added up to less than 125,000 square feet.  There is also increasing social pressure against maintaining a lush green lawn during the drought.

These rebates certainly help offset some of the costs of replacing lawns, and there is no question that the process saves water.  But do they tip the balance enough that lawn replacement is now cheaper than traditional lawn care as well?

This article will break down the cost of several options.  Business as usual and four alternatives are considered: painting dry conventional grass, artificial grass, a low-water alternative like buffalo grass that does not qualify for a rebate, and a low-water landscape that does qualify.

There are several factors that go into this consideration.  On the cost side, there is the price of the water needed to irrigate turf grass, and the cost of installing alternative options.  Savings come in three forms: lower water bills, rebates, and potential savings on other maintenance costs.  This article will focus on the first two factors, because while maintenance savings could be substantial, they will vary widely based on existing lawn care practices and which alternative people choose.

In order to compare costs, several assumptions were made.  Calculations will be based on replacing 1,000 sq. ft. of turf.  While many yards may be larger, this allows for a fixed comparison among households.  Water costs are calculated based on October 2014 rates in Claremont, CA. According to Golden State Water Company, average household use in 2010 was 21 ccf (hundred cubic feet, 1 ccf = 748 gallons) per month, with Tier I prices for the first 13 ccf and Tier II for the next 8 ccf.  I will assume water savings will come out of the Tier II usage.  This could underestimate the cost if people use enough water to push into Tier III, or overestimate it if they are really in Tier I.  The Tier II Quantity Cost is $3.698/ccf, with additional surcharges for the CARW and WRAM programs and rate adjustments, bringing the total to $4.24/ccf.

Turf water usage is calculated based on a 2006 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, which calculated the average irrigated area of an Inland Empire lot, the minimum amount of water required by the lawn, and how much watering it would take to deliver that amount of water given the inefficiencies of sprinkler systems.  As a result, the baseline turf water usage figure assumes that people water only as much as is necessary.  In reality, people may overwater, so the figures here could underestimate water savings from alternatives.

Inflation and potential water rate increases are ignored for the sake of calculation, but both could impact the break-even time.


Option 1: Continued watering

Based on the PPIC report, 1,000 sq. ft. of average Inland Empire lawn requires approximately 35,000 gallons of water per year.  PPIC estimates that inefficient irrigation results in actual water requirements being 6-27% higher than that figure.  Assuming the actual requirement is 25% greater, it would take about 44,000 gallons (59 ccf) per year to ensure the grass gets enough water.  That is the equivalent of nearly 6 acre-feet/acre.

• Cost to water lawn: $250 per year
• Cost per square foot: $0.25
• Cost with rebate: not applicable
• Break-even time range: not applicable


Option 2: Paint a brown lawn green

Lawn-painting services are booming in Southern California.  Several companies will spray-paint brown grass with a non-toxic formula that lasts about three months.  One of these companies charges $275 to paint 1,000 sq. ft., which is a fairly representative price, and suggests watering once a month to keep the grass from completely dying.  Based on water prices alone, painting a lawn green is actually more expensive than continued watering. Additionally, this option does not qualify for a rebate.

• Cost to paint 1000 sq. ft of lawn: $275
• Cost for nine months of coverage (three treatments): $825
• Total annual cost: $0.83/sq. ft.
• Cost with rebate: not applicable
• Anticipated annual water savings: $0.18/sq. ft. (reflects a 75% reduction due from switching to once a month watering schedule. Depending on previous watering pattern, actual savings may be greater)
• Break-even time range: none

It is worth noting that the company claims that its services can reduce water bills by up to 70%.  According to the LA County Water Department, a typical household can use up to 70% of its water outdoors, including for irrigation and pools.  Thus, a 70% reduction is plausible only if a household used its outdoor water exclusively for grass and then switched to four paint treatments a year, though this seems like an extreme scenario.  This analysis indicates that the cost of painting would exceed the water savings.


Option 3: Artificial grass (with possibility of rebate)

Synthetic lawns are making a push into the residential market.  Technology has improved recently, so it is possible to get water-permeable, heat-resistant, recycled materials, making it a more attractive option.

Artificial grass qualifies for the MWD rebate in most locations.  Since artificial grass requires no water (though people often wet it down on hot days if they will be walking on it), it should all but eliminate water use for lawns. Further, it has low maintenance costs after installation.  Artificial grass often comes with a warranty of 8-10 years, though some manufacturers claim it can last much longer. The lifespan of the turf should be considered in light of the break-even time.  The cost calculations for artificial grass are based on online prices from several large home improvement stores.

• High-end artificial grass: $3-$5/sq. ft.
• Weed cloth and decomposed granite: $0.37-$1.61/sq. ft.
• DIY cost, allowing for assorted additional expenses and tax: ~$4-$7/sq. ft.
• Professional installation (local example): $7+/sq. ft
• Cost with rebate: $2-$5+/sq. ft.
• Anticipated annual water savings: $0.25/sq. ft.
• Break-even time range: ~8-20 years

Option 4: Non-rebate alternative landscape

One very popular option at the moment is buffalo grass, a low-water turf grass.  One version, UC Verde, was developed at the University of California and is optimized for the California climate.  It is planted in clumps, generally with one plant/sq. ft., and then fills in to create a fairly conventional-appearing lawn.  It needs some extra fertilizer (less than $0.01/sq. ft.) and watering to get the plants established.

UC Verde’s makers say it can get by with up to 75% less water than typical turf grasses, The MWD rebate program does not allow “turf-looking plants,” so buffalo grass will not qualify. Costs are based on a California nursery’s online prices.

• Cost for 8 trays of 128 plugs (1,024 sq ft.), plus tax and shipping: $715.15
• Cost per sq. ft.: $0.72/sq. ft.
• Cost with rebate: not applicable
• Anticipated annual water savings: $0.18/sq. ft.
• Break-even time range: ~4 years


 Option 5: Alternative landscape with rebate

There is a huge variety of options for a drought-tolerant landscape that will qualify for a rebate, making it impossible to come up with a definitive cost analysis.  According to the 2006 PPIC report, Las Vegas homeowners saw 76% reduction in water use for landscaping when switching to drought-tolerant landscaping, a figure that is often used as a benchmark.

A trip to a local garden center helped provide some perspective on the range of options available to someone looking to redo their yard.  There are many ways to create a drought-resistant landscape, making it difficult to price out.  This section will consider several options for an ambitious (and frugal) DIY’er.  Costs are from a local garden supply center and online listings from a major home improvement store.

One popular ground cover option is dymondia, a low, silvery-green plant.  While it is not as robust as grass, it will fill in somewhat like a lawn.  Like buffalo grass, one plant will spread to fill about one square foot.

• Cost for flat of 25 plants, plus tax: $27.70
• Cost for mulch, assorted expenses: ~$0.40/sq. ft.
• Total cost range: ~$1.50/sq. ft.
• Cost with rebate: -$0.50/sq. ft. (or $0/sq. ft. if rebate is capped at actual cost)
• Anticipated annual water savings (75% reduction): $0.18/sq. ft.
• Break-even time range: 0 years

While some people might be satisfied with only a low ground cover, a popular option is for people to split their yards, using a ground cover for one area and larger plants in the other.  Here, there are even more options: shrubs, trees, succulents, flowers, and so on.  Some options include Texas ranger, a flowering shrub; southern wax Myrtle, an evergreen shrub; and pampas grass, a clumping grass with a white plume.  These range from $0.30/sq. ft. for the myrtle, which can cover nearly 80 sq. ft., to $1-2/sq. ft. for the Texas ranger (30 sq. ft.) and pampas grass (13 sq. ft.).

• Cost of assorted plants: $0.30-$2/sq. ft.
• Cost of mulch, assorted expenses: ~$0.50/sq. ft.
• Total cost range: ~$0.80-$2.50/sq. ft (Actual costs will likely be on the higher end of this range, since people will likely use a variety of plants)
• Cost with rebate: -$1.20 to $0.50/ sq. ft. (or $0-$0.50/sq. ft. if rebate is capped at actual cost)
• Anticipated annual water savings (75% reduction): $0.18/sq. ft.
• Minimum break-even time: 0-3 years

Depending on the specifics of the project, yearly maintenance costs could affect the break-even time.  For instance, replacing mulch could cancel out the yearly water savings in some cases.  It is also important to note that this is a bare-minimum project; some estimates have placed landscape replacement in the $5-7/sq. ft. range (before the rebate).

For another option, one company, Turf Terminators, will remove turf and install a drought-resistant landscape for no cost other than the rebate.  The net cost to the owner is $0/sq. ft, before considering ongoing maintenance costs.

So, what to do?

With the exception of lawn painting, each of the alternative options has the potential to pay for itself over time.  The best option appears to be xeriscaping with the water agency rebate, with a potential break-even time of three years or less.  Buffalo grass, at four years, is another promising option.

Money is clearly an important factor when people decide to remove their lawns, as the surging demand for the rebate programs demonstrates.  However, there also seems to be growing “green ethos,” a premium people are willing to pay in order to be sustainable.  This would particularly apply to the less cost-effective options, like lawn painting.

The Water Agency Perspective

Water use reduction is presumably the primary goal of the agencies sponsoring the rebate programs.  Given the popularity of the new, higher rebates, the program has the potential to generate considerable water savings.  For example, if a typical rebate-eligible project reduces water use by 75%, the 2.5 million sq. ft. replaced this past July could save 82.5 million gallons (250 acre-feet) per year.

The initial cost of this saved water is substantial.  Based on average lawn water use, each $2 of rebate should save 33 gallons of water per year, so MWD’s upfront cost is upwards of $19,700/acre-foot.

However, the benefit of the rebate program is that the water savings are recurring.  The one-time rebate payment will result in annual savings, meaning the effective price of the rebate water will drop over time as savings build up.  The rebate approach has the added benefit of freeing up more water without developing new sources, which can be a costly, unpredictable process.

There seems to be one other consideration on the agencies’ part.  The fact that “turf-looking” plants like buffalo grass do not qualify for the rebate suggests that program is designed to help foster a change in attitude about what an appropriate landscape is.  Perhaps if the rebate induces enough people to switch to xeriscaping, it will help establish a new norm.


Written by Stratecon Staff