Green waste collections fall by millions of pounds as Sacramentans let their lawns turn brown

With lawns turning brown across much of the Sacramento region, garbage haulers are collecting substantially less green waste.
With lawns turning brown across much of the Sacramento region, garbage haulers are collecting substantially less green waste. rbenton@sacbee.com

One less thing for many Sacramento-area residents to worry about: Is this the day to put out the green waste can?

As families across the region let their lawns go brown, garbage haulers for the area’s largest population centers have collected 26 million fewer pounds of green waste so far this summer compared to 2012, the first year of California’s drought, according to data obtained by The Sacramento Bee. That’s enough grass clippings to fill about a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The region’s water agencies have pleaded with local residents for months to cut back on watering lawns to meet rigorous new state conservation requirements. The new figures provide the most concrete indication yet of how residents have responded: Lawns are dying, and people aren’t mowing.

The amount of green waste collected from May through July in Roseville, Elk Grove and most of unincorporated Sacramento County collectively fell almost 10 percent this year compared to last year, and almost 30 percent compared to 2012. In the city of Sacramento, green waste collections during May and June fell 6 percent compared to last year and about 37 percent compared to 2012. The city has not compiled July figures.

Area waste management officials said the drop is unprecedented in recent history. In the years immediately leading up to the drought, Roseville, Sacramento, Elk Grove and Sacramento County saw little fluctuation in the amount of green waste collected each summer.

“It’s obviously due to the drought,” said Chris Celsi, Sacramento County’s waste management superintendent. “People are starting to pull out their grass and putting in hardscape, or people just aren’t watering.”

Thanks to strong water rights and a location upriver from other metropolitan areas, Sacramento has long been one of the places in California where most houses unabashedly sport lawns. The region’s average lot size is much larger than lot sizes in cities along the coast – and much of that extra space has traditionally been filled with green grass.

It was an open question a few months ago whether the region’s residents would reduce their landscape watering enough to meet state-mandated water consumption targets. For most agencies in the region, those targets called for reductions of 28 percent to 36 percent in water use compared to 2013 – a figure too high to reach if local residents didn’t collectively reduce lawn watering.

Sacramento-area cities and water agencies responded to the targets by limiting outdoor irrigation to specific days, usually two days a week. In turn, the region’s residents reduced water usage about 35 percent in June.

The effects of the reductions are obvious in most Sacramento neighborhoods. A few years ago, a lawn with dead grass and dirt could draw a citation from municipal code enforcement officials. Today, many streets in the region are peppered with golden brown lawns.

“There are more gold lawns in our community than ever before,” said Maurice Chaney, a spokesman for Roseville’s Environmental Utilities Department.

On Starina Way in Rosemont, about three-fifths of the roughly 60 homes have lawns that have largely dried to brown. A few have tufts of gold grass sticking up from dirt.

“I have never seen it like this,” said Alex Kachmar, an area resident sitting in a park along Starina Way. “Everyone is doing their part.”

Kachmar said his grandchildren still mow his lawn once a week, though they don’t need to. “They just mow it because they need a job,” he said.

The change is more stark in the Vineyard area of Sacramento County, just north of Elk Grove. In one Vineyard subdivision, Silver Legends, large, expensive homes are surrounded by large, brown lawns. Nearly every lawn has some gold patches; many have withered to nothing but gold.

Sacramento County restricts watering to one day a week for Vineyard residents. Darrell Perry has diligently followed those rules, and his lawn has baked to a dusty brown. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “I would prefer a green lawn.”

Nonetheless, Perry said he is considering ripping out his lawn and replacing it with drought-tolerant plants. One day a week of watering isn’t enough to keep a lawn alive, he said, though it might be enough to let the lawn come back if it ever rains.

In Sacramento’s North Natomas community, the abundance of brown grass is more than just an eyesore for Sal Lara. He mows lawns as a way to supplement his retirement income.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Lara pushed a mower on Chimney Rock Way, a tributary of Saintsbury Drive. About two-thirds of the roughly 80 homes along Saintsbury featured lawns swirled with patches of brown and gold.

The trend has hurt Lara’s business. He used to mow his customers’ lawns once a week; now it’s two or three times a month. “Eventually, they will probably drop me,” said Lara, who worked in the meat department at a Bel Air grocery before retiring.

The sharp reduction in green waste has made it easier for county workers to quickly finish collection routes, said Celsi with Sacramento County. But it has not yet forced fundamental changes in how cities and counties collect garbage. Drivers still need to work their routes, Celsi said; many houses are still putting out green waste cans even when they are half full.

A few more dry years could cause waste management officials to reassess. They could, for instance, cut a collection route, at least temporarily, if there isn’t enough green waste to pick up, Celsi said. But Celsi and others said they expect green lawns to return and green waste pickups to resurge in future summers when the drought finally breaks.

“It could change overnight – the second we get wet weather,” said Erin Treadwell, a spokeswoman for Sacramento’s Solid Waste and Recycling Division. “The grass is green ... and we are back to where we were.”