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Roberta Walker

Sacramento landscape designer Roberta Walker transformed a former lawn into a “riverbed” (above) with cobblestones and water-wise shrubs and perennials.

Sacramento council votes to launch ‘cash for grass’ program to save water

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 4, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014 - 12:08 pm

The city of Sacramento wants to pay you to rip out your water-guzzling lawn.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to launch a “cash for grass” program that will provide rebates to homeowners who replace their grass lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. Demand for the rebates is expected to be high; city utilities officials said they already had a waiting list for the program before the spending plan was approved.

“I think this will really help our residents make a difference in saving water,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty, who proposed the program. “I think it’s time that as a city, we help incentivize action in conservation.”

The rebate plan has not been finalized, but could involve homeowners receiving 50 cents per square foot of lawn, up to 1,000 feet. The city has set aside $100,000 for the program and plans to start issuing rebates in April.

Sacramento has launched intense water conservation efforts in recent weeks, as the region and Northern California grapple with a historic drought that has led to low levels in area reservoirs and rivers.

In January, the council voted to enact a mandatory 20 percent reduction on citywide water usage and to beef up enforcement of residents watering lawns during the week, a violation of winter watering rules.

Utilities officials told the council that the city is off to a good start in its water conservation. Total water use in Sacramento was down 12 percent in January, compared with the average total of the past two years. That’s a reduction of 8 million gallons per day.

Residents have also responded to calls by the city to report water waste.

The city received 110 calls through the first two months of last year from residents reporting illegal water use. Over the same time this year, residents made 2,200 of those calls.

That has led to a sharp increase in the number of warnings the city has issued to homeowners, from 14 last year to 205 this year. Only a handful of fines have been issued.

Recent rainfall has helped, but has not erased the region’s drought concerns.

“I want to emphasize that the drought does persist,” said Dave Brent, city utilities director. “There really is no end in sight.”

Utilities officials said the city would continue its water conservation plans. Billboards will begin appearing around the city and on buses next week urging residents to take shorter showers and “brush every other tooth.”

Brent said the city would also ask for money for the lawn program in next year’s budget.

“If you need more, come back,” said Councilman Steve Hansen.

Roseville has the oldest “cash for grass” program in the region. Lisa Brown, a water conservation administrator in Roseville, said the city has granted about 500 rebates since 2008. More than 350,000 square feet of grass lawn has been replaced over that time, she said.

Roseville pays $1 per square foot for its program. Demand was so high this year that the city has already run out of money and will have to wait until the next fiscal year to begin issuing rebates again, Brown said.

Chris Brown, a water consultant and the former executive director of California Urban Water Conservation Council, applauded Sacramento’s rebate plan.

“It’s time for Sacramento to be a leader in the Central Valley,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at

Read more articles by Ryan Lillis

About City Beat

Ryan Lillis has covered the city of Sacramento, its 108 neighborhoods and its politicians since 2008. Prior to that, he covered crime at The Bee. A native of upstate New York, Lillis has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Contact reporter Ryan Lillis at

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