Cash-for-grass might ease new water mandates

Cash-for-grass programs might encourage homeowners to give up thirsty lawns like these in El Dorado Hills.
Cash-for-grass programs might encourage homeowners to give up thirsty lawns like these in El Dorado Hills. Sacramento Bee file

California’s tough new water restrictions will force dramatic changes in the way we use water, especially outdoors.

The new regulations, which the state Water Resources Control Board approved Tuesday, will not be easy. But given the severity of the drought, they are necessary.

Despite voluntary calls for conservation, most Californians have failed to take the shortage seriously. In March, the state’s urban water users saved just 3.6 percent compared with the same month in 2013. Gov. Jerry Brown had called for a 20 percent reduction.

The new rules call for a 25 percent average cut in water usage, and they will be mandatory. Some areas that have historically used more water will have to reduce their usage even further. How to achieve those savings will be left mostly to local water agencies to decide.

But there is no avoiding the fact that, at least until it starts raining again, Californians are going to have to get used to less vibrant landscapes. Outdoor watering accounts for about half of urban water usage, and in some areas it is well above that.

We can live without lawns, if we have to, to save our drinking water supply. But the state also should ante up to help provide incentives for homeowners to replace turf with drought-resistant plants and exchange sprinklers with drip irrigation.

Many cities already offer incentives for homeowners to transform their yards, because paying people to save water is cheaper for the agencies than buying it. But the rebates vary wildly. In Los Angeles, residents get $3.75 per square foot for tearing out grass. In Sacramento, the rebates are just 50 cents per foot, and they are more difficult to obtain. In Davis, residents get nothing.

Whether to offer a rebate, and how much, are decisions that should be left to local governments and water agencies. But the state can do more to help, perhaps by offering matching funds to locals that choose to give rebates to water-savers. To avoid penalizing those that stepped up first, matching funds also should go to reimburse agencies that already have been granting rebates.

The state treasury is running a multibillion-dollar surplus this year, and much of the unexpected windfall may be part of a one-time surge in revenue that won’t be sustained as the economy cools off. Turf replacement rebates could be a way to spend a portion of that surplus, because the payments would be a one-time expenditure that would not be an ongoing burden to the state budget.

That’s an investment that would help individual Californians cope with the drought while also making the governor’s water-saving goals more achievable. And it would prepare the state for the long haul if the drought turns out to be the new normal.