Outdoor irrigation accounts for nearly half of all water use in Southern California cities and suburbs, and much of that water is sprayed from sprinklers to keep grass green.

Under a bill passed by state lawmakers this week, California will soon ban drinking water use for some of those vast expanses of grass — purely ornamental green patches that are mowed but never walked on or used for recreation.

The grass covers an estimated 218,000 acres in the Metropolitan Water District in the six-county region of Southern California. Nearly a quarter of that area, or up to 51,000 acres, is classified as “passive” grass — the type of grass that fills spaces along roads and sidewalks, in front of businesses, and around parking lots.

This unused lawn covers an area about 12 times the size of Griffith Park. By removing this grass and replacing it with landscaping suited to Southern California’s dry climate, the district estimates the area could reduce total water use by approximately 10%.

“This will make a significant dent in water that is currently wasted in outdoor water use,” said Adan Ortega Jr., MWD Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Read more: Faced with shortages on the Colorado River, 30 urban suppliers have pledged to target ornamental grass

Ortega said the legislation was delayed.

“Excessive outdoor irrigation poses a major challenge to our ability to adapt to climate change,” Ortega said.

The bill was approved by the state Senate by a vote of 28-10 on Monday and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

The legislation prohibits the use of potable water on purely ornamental lawns along roadways, at medians and outside businesses and in the common areas of homeowners associations.

The bill, AB 1572, was introduced by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale). It prohibits the use of potable water for non-working turf on commercial, industrial, municipal and institutional properties.

The ban will come into effect in stages between 2027 and 2031. The legislation includes exceptions for grass in sports fields, parks, cemeteries, areas used for activities and other “community spaces.” It also excludes areas where grass is irrigated with recycled water.

“It’s a no-brainer. It’s the grass you look at but never use for anything,” Friedman said. “And that means moving to things like native plants and drought-tolerant plants, which, by the way, look great.”

At her home, for example, she got rid of non-native ivy years ago, and now has a thriving native garden with poppies, lupines, fragrant sagebrush and oak trees, Friedman said.

While the legislation prohibits purely decorative turf in most common areas of homeowners associations, it would not affect residential lawns.

Grass outside apartment complexes, which was originally included in the bill, was removed from the legislation after some city officials and water agency directors raised concerns about how the restrictions would be enforced, and about the costs to low-income communities.

Read more: California bans “non-functional” lawn watering in some areas, strengthening drought rules

The legislation would make permanent a measure California water regulators adopted last year during the drought — and re-adopted for another year in May — to ban the use of drinking water to irrigate non-functional lawns at businesses and establishments not used for recreational or other community purposes. Activities.

By adopting this water-saving measure, California is following Nevada’s example. The Nevada State Legislature in 2021 passed a law prohibiting the watering of purely ornamental grasses along streets and medians and in homeowners’ associations, apartment complexes, businesses and other properties starting in 2027.

Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, a water research center in Oakland, said the bill is an important step in working toward meeting California’s water goals.

“As we face climate change, and as we face continued growth, we have to be smarter about how we use water,” Cooley said. “So removing these grassy areas that no one is using is actually a smart move to prepare our communities for the more volatile and uncertain climate we now face.”

She said the legislation would also help cities move toward the state’s planned conservation goals, which in coming years will require urban suppliers to have water budgets and start meeting efficiency standards.

The drive to use less water on lawns in cities and suburbs has been driven in part by chronic shortages in the shrinking Colorado River, where reservoirs have reached low levels in recent years, prompting negotiations over plans to reduce water use. Water agency leaders are also discussing ways to achieve water savings in agriculture, which consumes nearly 80% of the river’s water, much of which is used to grow alfalfa and other livestock feed crops.

In cities across the West, areas with unused grass have become a prime target for urban water managers as they look for ways to quickly and permanently reduce water use. Some officials have talked about non-functional turf so much that they have shortened it with the abbreviation “NFT.”

Efforts to move away from grass also reflect a shift in aesthetics and values ​​associated with increasing scarcity and frugality. Whereas it was once acceptable for suburban streets to be lined with lush landscaping reminiscent of English estates, there is now widespread agreement that it doesn’t make sense for cities to pump water long distances and treat it to drinking water standards — just spray it. On grass that serves no real purpose.

Read more: With California expected to lose 10% of its water within 20 years, Newsom is calling for urgent action

Last year, leaders of 30 water agencies that supply cities from Denver to San Diego signed an agreement setting a goal of removing 30 percent of non-functioning grass — and replacing it with “drought- and climate-resistant landscapes,” while also preserving trees.

Conservationists have touted various benefits: eliminating unnecessary grass not only saves valuable water and reduces delivery costs, it also reduces the energy used to pump and treat water.

The bill’s timeline would prohibit the use of potable water for non-functional turf on many properties owned by local governments starting in 2027, followed by commercial and industrial properties starting in 2028, and common areas of homeowners associations in 2029.

The legislation allows local agencies in disadvantaged communities additional time after 2031 if necessary to secure state funds to pay for turf replacement with low-water use landscaping. It also provides flexibility for special circumstances, saying the State Water Resources Control Board may postpone the deadline for up to three years in the event of “economic hardship, critical business needs, and potential impacts to human health or safety.”

After several revisions, the bill gained support from the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents about 460 public water suppliers.

Read more: California’s sweeping water conservation rules could force significant reductions in some areas

Cash rebates are available in Southern California and other parts of the state to help property owners defray the costs of lawn removal and landscaping that uses less water.

MWD has a turf replacement program that pays a base rebate of $2 for every square foot of turf removed and replaced with water-efficient landscaping. The discount is available to homeowners as well as businesses and other property owners. Some of MWD’s 26 member agencies, including cities and other water suppliers, offer additional rebates, in many cases $1 but in some areas up to $3 per square foot of grass removed.

In June, it received a state grant to increase the district’s base deduction to $3 for commercial, industrial and institutional properties, said Rebecca Kimmich, a spokeswoman for the agency. Officials expect the higher rebates to be available starting later this year, and are also seeking money from the federal government to support its rebates for turf removal.

According to the district, rebates paid so far have removed more than 4,500 acres of grass, saving enough water to supply more than 60,000 homes on average.

Studies conducted by the district found that for every 100 homes where customers removed lawns using a rebate, 132 nearby homeowners were inspired to get rid of their lawns without getting a rebate — what district managers called the “halo effect.” ”

Last year, the County Council passed a resolution urging cities and water agencies across Southern California to enact local ordinances prohibiting the use of potable water for non-functional turf outside businesses and along roadways, as well as in new home construction.

“There is a huge opportunity there,” said Adel Haj Khalil, general manager of MWD. “If it’s not being used by someone, it’s just wasting water. Water is very valuable.”

Another bill Friedman introduced, AB 1573, would have banned non-functional turf in new or renovated non-residential projects, and would have required more native plants for those properties. Friedman said the measure aims to help the state’s struggling ecosystems and give a boost to butterflies and other pollinators.

But amendments approved in the Senate Appropriations Committee would have weakened the measures, including by allowing non-domestic agriculture. Friedman responded by suspending the legislation.

Another bill, SB 676, which the Assembly passed Tuesday, enables cities and counties to ban or restrict the installation of artificial turf on residential properties — something they were barred from doing under previous legislation adopted in 2015.

Supporters of the bill, introduced by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), said artificial turf poses major environmental problems. They pointed to research showing that microplastics from artificial turf end up washing into streams and oceans, and harmful PFAS chemicals have also been found in artificial turf.

The measure changes the law to specify that cities and counties may not prohibit the installation of drought-tolerant landscaping “using live plant materials,” but may prohibit artificial turf.

Another bill approved, AB 1423, would ban the manufacture and sale of artificial turf that contains PFAS chemicals. This bill also awaits the governor’s signature.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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