Joe Mathews: My lawn is worse than yours – and I’m proud

Half of Joe Mathews’ front lawn in South Pasadena is turning brown. He wants more guidance on how to save water and keep his lot presentable.
Half of Joe Mathews’ front lawn in South Pasadena is turning brown. He wants more guidance on how to save water and keep his lot presentable. Joe Mathews

Forgive me for bragging, but my front lawn looks a lot worse than yours.

As the drought deepens and the state plans for mandatory restrictions, California’s lawn culture has flipped, dirt-side up. Your local community pillars, once celebrated for lawns even greener than their money, run the risk of becoming social outcasts.

On the other side is your columnist, who is allergic to lawn watering and all other forms of lawn maintenance. Now, at the dawn of this drier California era, I find myself an accidental avatar of civic virtue. As Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips told KQED, this literal shift in the landscape is “sort of a learning moment for all of us.”

And so I offer my own story as a lesson. When we bought our home in South Pasadena four years ago, schools – not lawns – were on our minds. The house was, and remains, a mess. But we also inherited a lovely lot with fruit trees and a Bermuda grass front yard served by an automatic sprinkler system.

Then came the shocking water bills – nearly $200 in some months. We cut back watering to twice a week. We installed low-flow toilets and a washing machine. But the bills stayed high. The problem was that our small city has raised water rates more than 170 percent over the past seven years to fix long-neglected infrastructure.

So last year, I stopped watering altogether.

Besides money, my reasons were the drought and a lack of time (with three kids and a demanding job). As a descendant of Okies, I was prepared to go full Dust Bowl. But on the south side of the lawn, the grass still grows green, protected by shade from a street tree. But the sun-baked north half is a mix of yellow grass and dirt. Weeds have a foothold.

At first, I felt guilty. But that didn’t last. Two people on the block sold homes for high prices, so I wasn’t hurting property values. And my bills came down to about $70 a month. Now, with the full force of the State Water Resources Control Board and Gov. Jerry Brown behind me, I feel pride when I look outside my front door. When the state said that my city was using too much water and would be required to cut 35 percent, my pride swelled.

Yes, I can hear the horrified screams of the gardeners and good neighbors across our state: Not watering is not an answer!

But what exactly is required? After months of investigating the possibilities, I’m uncertain.

Many water agencies will pay Californians to take out their turf and replace it with drought-resistant landscaping, which sounds good. Except that the rebates cover only a fraction of the cost. If you do what’s most responsible and beautiful, it could run $20,000. Cheaper options typically replace grass with hard surfaces that add to the “heat island” effect of cities. And then some experts argue that the right kind of grass is environmentally better than some drought-tolerant landscaping.

Reading the contradictory advice, you can see that this shift in lawn culture will be as much about beauty as about water. That’s fine, but those of us who don’t care about aesthetics need clearer guidance. How do I – cheaply – keep the front of my house presentable and water-wise?

If no answer is forthcoming, I’m perfectly happy to keep the water off. Let others bemoan the eyesore I’ve created. I’ll be celebrating my civic-mindedness.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.