Letter from Los Angeles — From the September 2016 issue

Land of Sod

Southern California homeowners vs. nature

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Driving through Beverly Hills one afternoon this spring, I pulled over at a corner lot with a tennis court, a pool, a guest house, twenty towering sycamore and redwood trees, and an acre of emerald grass. I had arrived at the mansion of Lisa and Joshua Greer, their five children, and an American Staffordshire Terrier rescue. Although California is now in the fifth year of a historic and devastating drought, the Greers have kept their lawn looking as lush as if it were in Ireland. “I just didn’t want brown,” Lisa told me. Lisa runs a management-consulting firm; Joshua cofounded RealD, a company that makes 3-D glasses and sold last year for $551 million. Lisa was standing on her front walk sporting a Fitbit, designer sweats, and a perfectly coiffed auburn bob. “Some people are like, ‘We just let our grass go brown,’ and I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do.” A stretch safari jeep packed with tourists was slowly rolling along the street. Lisa gave me the rundown: Jimmy Stewart’s old house was on the corner, Lucille Ball’s (“Lucy’s house”) was the Mediterranean villa across the street, the Gershwins were a few doors down, and Ella Fitzgerald lived a half block away. “Especially with these star tours all day long, I didn’t want our house looking like a dump,” she said.

Automatic sprinkler at 4:30 p.m., Beverly Hills. All photographs from southern California by Mike Slack

Automatic sprinkler at 4:30 p.m., Beverly Hills. All photographs from southern California by Mike Slack

Lisa Greer’s sense of propriety about her yard is not uncommon in southern California. “You’re in lawn country,” one Angeleno told me. Down the coast and throughout the inland valleys, some 212,000 acres of thirsty turfgrass continue to be irrigated year-round, at tremendous expense, with billions of gallons of water imported from hundreds of miles away. For many people, a southern California house without a lawn would be like It’s a Wonderful Life without Jimmy Stewart. But there is also a revisionist view — the lawn as architect Elizabeth Diller described it recently: a “platform for controlled domestic growth, but also a sinister surface of repressed horror.”

The Greers began to worry that their lawn’s days were numbered last year. On April Fools’ Day, Governor Jerry Brown had stood in a bare field in the Sierra Nevada Mountains — where the snowpack is usually five feet deep — and announced unprecedented statewide water restrictions. Urban areas, he ordered, were to reduce their total water consumption by 25 percent. To meet that target, individual cities and towns would be required to conserve different amounts specified by the state water board, ranging from 8 percent in cities such as Compton (small lots, with gravel, hardscape, or dead grass) to 36 percent in wealthy inland communities such as Arcadia (huge lots, with grass and flower beds). Brown also called for 50 million square feet of lawn (1,148 acres) to be replaced with drought-tolerant landscapes, which would save the state 488 billion gallons of water a year, the equivalent of 739,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. In his announcement, Brown declared: “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day? That’s going to be a thing of the past.”

Since the state began keeping records, California has periodically experienced brief droughts, typically lasting around three years. Yet geophysical evidence indicates that the region has also known 200-year droughts, suggesting that modern California may have been built during an unusually wet century and is now returning to the drier norm. Compounding that possibility is climate change. The state’s snowpack — which, like a water tank, accumulates reserves all winter and spills down meltwater all summer — is disappearing.

When state officials saw that the spring’s snowpack was zilch, they were forced to start reckoning with the possibility that the drought wasn’t going to end. Water used on outdoor landscaping became an obvious and immediate focus, because in California’s urban areas, an average of 50 percent of the water supply irrigates lawns and gardens. “People don’t realize that,” Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, told me. “They are routinely using this highly treated, precious, drinking-water-quality water to overwater their lawns.” Local water agencies pushed for turfgrass removal. The Metropolitan Water District, which sells water wholesale to cities and towns throughout southern California, serving more than 19 million people, offered $340 million in cash-for-grass rebates. (From the time the rebate was first offered, in 2008 — at a pittance of thirty cents per square foot of grass removed — to the time the drought was declared a state of emergency, in 2014, the program spent only $10 million.) Smaller water agencies had their own grass-removal rebate programs, too. Homeowners could combine the M.W.D. rebate with their local municipality’s and get as much as $3.75 for every square foot of lawn removed. The program “took off like gangbusters,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, the M.W.D.’s general manager, said.

Honeybee in xeriscaped lawn, Hancock Park. All photographs from southern California by Mike Slack.

Honeybee in xeriscaped lawn, Hancock Park. All photographs from southern California by Mike Slack.

In the Greers’ neighborhood, however, cash rebates meant nothing. As the rest of the state withered, Beverly Hills remained a world unto itself, full of rainbows glistening in sprinklers and rolled-out tracts of turfgrasses with come-hither names like Bermuda, Marathon, and red fescue. Pools burbled and leaked, and every dawn saw drenched sod. By October 2015, the city had failed to meet its conservation target, and the state water cops issued a $61,000 fine, insisting that Beverly Hills residents should be “ashamed.”

Local and national media couldn’t get enough of the story, and drought shaming went viral. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the top water guzzler in Los Angeles — “The Wet Prince of Bel Air” — had used 11.8 million gallons in one year. The person’s identity was not publicly revealed, so Maureen Levinson, a member of the Bel Air–Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, went in search of the culprit. “I’m just a mom with a camera,” she told me. She patrols the streets, a vigilante in a minivan, intent on exposing the most egregious water offenses in the hills to city officials. She also drafts policy recommendations, and her pursuit of the Wet Prince was likely a factor in the city’s imposition of a new, stricter conservation ordinance in late April.

The Greers began to worry that they might be targeted, and their water bills had become awfully high. Beverly Hills had introduced a new penalty structure: if customers did not reduce their water usage by at least 30 percent from their 2013 consumption, they would pay surcharges on an escalating scale. The Greers’ first bill under the new system was nearly quadruple what it had been before. “The penalty alone was five digits,” Lisa said. Outraged 90210 residents sent letters to city hall to protest the fees. The Greers, with the help of a landscape architect, decided to replace their lawn with Agrostis pallens, a type of bent grass native to the California coast, and to plant an evergreen ground cover called Myoporum between the sidewalk and the street.

I stood on the finished product and, had I not known better, I would’ve thought that it needed as much water as any lawn in Los Angeles. Though the project cost more than $100,000, Lisa said that she and her husband expected to make back the investment in less than a year, considering what they would have had to pay to keep their old lawn green. So far, the new landscape has cut their water usage by more than the 30 percent target. She held up an iPhone to prove it on Water Tracker, an app provided by the City of Beverly Hills. “I’m rabid,” she said. “I check it every day. I can see my water usage by the hour!” She tapped and scrolled, showing me comparisons by month and year. In March, the Greers were down by 42 percent from 2013. They hoped the results would continue.

Lisa Greer, exemplar of California aspiration, seemed to have figured out how to have it all: the lawn of Hollywood dreams and the satisfaction of doing the right thing. Of course, most people can’t afford to install an acre of beautiful yet drought-tolerant sod. Most people either let their lawns die slowly (and maybe hire one of the companies that paint brown lawns green) or replace their yards with gravel, synthetic turf, or sandy xeriscapes dotted with rocks and cacti — all of which can be seen on a drive through Los Angeles.

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