It is unfortunate that so much damage was done to lawns throughout Los Angeles by Turf Terminators, a short-lived company that destroyed 12,000 lawns and removed sixteen million square feet of grass. While Turf Terminators collected government-funded lawn removal rebates on behalf of its customers, irreparable damage was done to California’s living landscape and all the environmental benefits they provide. By tearing up living yards – the greatest carbon sinks California had – the state now has increased heat, poorer air quality and dead and dying trees. And habitat for our pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds? Eviscerated.
Drought is real. But water use must be seen as an investment. We need to get smarter about how we use water—not remove living landscapes that more than pay for their upkeep, especially if they are designed and planted for their climate zone.
In all the conversations and policies around drought, not enough has been stated around the negative consequences of demonizing grass and replacing it with non-living ground covers like mulch or gravel. I was in Los Angeles last month while filming an episode of “Lucky Dog” and I met a family who took a government-funded conversion. They were left with a landscape filled with a mulch-like surface. Gone was the play space for children and their pets, as their yard became little more than a muddy pit. They regretted their decision and were desperate to “convert” their “converted lawn” to something usable as well as drought and environmentally-friendly.
Sadly, it seems like the privilege of having a living landscape in drought-stressed communities is becoming the purview of the wealthy, but not the “have nots.” Those homeowners who hired Turf Terminators to rip out their lawns and were left with gravelscaped wastelands are often the least able to afford a second lawn makeover.
Additionally, during the panic-stricken stampede to respond to the drought, California rolled out a “cash for grass” rebate program while ignoring existing water conservation programs that could have been more effective. Even Ron Galperin, the Los Angeles city controller labeled the lawn rebate program “largely a gimmick” and noted that “the turf replacement gave … the lowest return on investment [compared to] other conservation programs,” such as water-efficient washing machines or toilets.”
America’s public policy responses to drought require well-thought out and proven strategies. California’s lawn rebate gimmick did far more harm than good – showing that hasty decision making may not be in the best of interest of the environment, families, or government coffers. I hope that other state and local governments can learn from California’s mistakes, so they don’t pay as steep a price. Drought isn’t forever. Let’s not make forever mistakes.