Roseville to replace turf with water-saving plants in response to drought

Roseville plans to remove 2 acres of turf on city-owned property, plant shrubs and replace sprinklers with a drip irrigation system, similar to the one pictured.
Roseville plans to remove 2 acres of turf on city-owned property, plant shrubs and replace sprinklers with a drip irrigation system, similar to the one pictured. Sacramento Bee file

In response to the ongoing drought, Roseville leaders on Wednesday approved a plan to tear up roughly 2 acres of turf on city property and replace it with water-saving plants.

City officials say the move will conserve 6.9 million gallons of water and $10,000 in irrigation costs annually. Under the plan, 8,400 square feet of turf at Crestmont Park and 90,000 square feet at a city-owned corporation yard will be replanted with shrubs and small trees.

“These are areas that can’t be used or don’t have a function,” said Dominick Casey, director of parks, recreation and libraries for Roseville.

Casey described the patches of grass as “nonfunctional” and existing “purely for aesthetics.”

The $150,000 project is reflective of California’s new reality of tight water supplies.

As spring rolled around last year, Roseville officials considered a surcharge to compel customers to reduce water usage. Officials later backtracked on the proposal after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of Folsom Dam, increased its water allocations for Roseville and other communities.

Still, the city imposed two bans on residential customers: no car washing without a nozzle and no rinsing of hard surfaces unless necessary for health and safety reasons. Commercial customers were told to reduce outdoor irrigation by 30 percent. Restaurants were asked to pitch in by serving water to patrons only on request.

Roseville officials also let some underutilized parks and fields brown out, said Lisa Brown, the city’s water efficiency administrator. The move was in line with a symbolic decision by Gov. Jerry Brown to let parches of grass at the state Capitol die.

As a result of the water reduction measures, Roseville nearly reached its 20 percent reduction goal for 2014, with usage down 19.4 percent compared with 2013.

“We’re very proud,” Lisa Brown said. “Our customers did a great job.”

The problem with maintaining turf, Casey said, lies in the irrigation system as much as the water-happy nature of the plant. Grass is typically irrigated with pop-up sprinklers that spray roughly 2.5 gallons per minute.

“You water the street and sidewalk as much as the turf grass,” Casey said.

With the conversion to shrubs and small trees, the city will install an efficient drip system that will be covered in mulch. Drip irrigation, which resembles a series of slim spaghetti-like pipes, delivers water to the base of the plants, eliminating evaporation and overspray.

“Drip irrigation converts (usage from) gallons per minute to gallons per hour,” Lisa Brown said.

Using grass to landscape parks and lawns is the result of age-old English gardening traditions. In the United Kingdom, summer rains create lush emerald meadows.

“People used lawns as meadows,” said Ellen Zagory, director of public horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum. “They would have sheep out there. It was an aesthetic value to have it look green.”

She added, “If you’re not worried about water, it’s a no-brainer.”

But times have changed. Today, water companies and municipalities alike are bankrolling efforts to tear out lawns. The city of Sacramento last year launched a “cash for grass” program that paid homeowners to replace turf with other plants. Customers in the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can receive rebates by doing the same.

Roseville administers a similar program that proved so popular last year that officials ran out of money. The city paid $110,000 to 135 residents last year at a rate of $1 per square foot. This year, the city has earmarked $165,000 and reduced the payout to 50 cents per square foot. So far, 185 projects have been completed.

But large projects to remove turf are squarely dependent on budgets, experts say.

It would take Roseville 15 years to recoup the cost of the current 2-acre project based on projected water cost savings. Officials emphasized they were looking forward to the immediate water reduction as opposed to financial considerations.

An additional 13 acres of nonfunctional turf on city property may eventually be replanted with water-saving plants, according to Casey.

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.