Facing a new climate reality, Southern California lawns could wither

The region’s adopted unprecedented water conservation measures to cope with its relentless drought, sparking a backlash

New neighbors living below Jim and Cindy Hampton install a pool and lawn in their back yard in Agoura Hills, Calif., on May 3. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)
12 min

AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — From behind the wheel of his work van, Fernando Gonzalez took in the immaculate front yard amid the arid and affluent hills north of Los Angeles. The red and white rosebushes. The loquat and pear trees. The expanse of lush green grass and the two peacocks lounging beneath the portico.

The stately residence had been consuming about 40,000 gallons of water a month, and had already received a warning and a fine for overuse. Amid the historic drought now entering its third painful summer, Gonzalez’s employer, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, has demanded this home and millions of others cut irrigation by 35 percent as of June 1. If things don’t improve by September, authorities say, outdoor water use could be banned entirely.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in their landscaping,” Gonzalez said. “And now we’re telling them: you almost have to let it die.”

The relentless dry spell that is withering the American West is steadily warping normal life. Major reservoirs have baked down to record lows and are still dropping, threatening the ability to generate hydropower. Farming regions that fill the country’s produce aisles are being forced to leave fields fallow, unable to irrigate. The warming climate is fanning wildfires and melting off the mountain snowpack that millions rely on for their drinking water.

In Los Angeles, the drought is now coming for the lawns.

“We are in an emergency. I call this a natural disaster,” said Adel Hagekhalil, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which announced last month that some 6 million people in its service area will have to limit irrigation to one day per week, the most severe cutbacks in its history.

“It’s okay to have your lawn yellow,” said Hagekhalil, who oversees a $1.9 billion budget and nearly 2,000 employees from his office in downtown Los Angeles. “You don’t have to have it lush green. I know we all love our grass but we need to sacrifice, because none of us want to have a day without water.”

But this is not a sacrifice everyone is willing to make. Since the restriction warnings began, customers have bombarded the Las Virgenes water office — one of 26 public water agencies which operate under the Metropolitan Water District — with angry phone calls.

“People freaked out,” said Mike McNutt, a spokesman for the water district. “It was insane. I felt terrible for the front-office staff, which are doing a tremendous job for us. Irritated, pissed off people, all that stuff.”

Water for landscaping makes up about 70 to 80 percent of urban water use in Southern California, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank. “If we shift toward plants and landscapes that are more appropriate toward California climate, we could dramatically reduce our water use,” she said.

Under the new rules, the Metropolitan Water District has given its public-water agencies a choice: reduce water use to an average of 80 gallons per day per capita; or limit outdoor watering to once a week. Some areas, particularly wealthy communities, consume far more water than the 80 gallons per person per day. Las Virgenes customers, for example, use more than 200 gallons per day. Most jurisdictions have chosen the one-day-a-week watering path.

Faced with such a dramatic jolt, Las Virgenes, which is completely reliant on imported water, has moved faster than other agencies to develop a plan to enforce the cutbacks. The district hired a private security company to do night patrols, starting May 2, to look for excessive watering. They’ve developed a scale of punishments for overuse, from escalating fines to installing “water restrictors,” which are metal discs with a pinhole in the middle that chokes off water to an aggravating trickle.

“When you look at some of the measures we’re putting in place I would say some of them are pretty draconian,” said David W. Pedersen, the water district’s general manager. “But we need to have them, because we’re in a situation where there just isn’t enough water to go around.”

“The American Dream has been rooted in the white picket fence and big front lawn,” he added. “I think that’s changing. It needs to change.”

At the home with the peacocks in Agoura Hills, owners Jim and Cindy Hampton said the situation has frustrated many in the neighborhood.

“The initial response right now is anger,” said Jim Hampton, an engineer. “What gets them angry is, there’s a sense of finality to the threat that your water is going to be shut off pretty much completely.”

Hampton questioned why the local government continues to push for growth and development at a time of such intense water restrictions. He feared that letting yards dry out would turn them into kindling for the next wildfire. The 2018 Woolsey fire burned down several of their neighbors’ homes; the Hamptons evacuated and their home suffered damage from ash and smoke from the blaze.

Hampton led Gonzalez on a tour of his property. The 20 sprinkler stations. The swimming pool in the back. He was not trying to fight the rules, he said. He considered himself “Mr. Compliance.” He replaces worn out sprinkler heads. He puts plastic over the drains when irrigating to avoid runoff into the street. In the past month he’d cut down his water use about half, as instructed.

“You can see right over here that the grass is starting to die out,” he said, pointing to a brown spot in the lawn.

“I always want to keep the utilities down,” added his wife Cindy, an accountant. “And we’ve been trying to do that as best as we can. But we always see that on the bill: You’ve exceeded your limits, you’ve exceeded your limits. What else can we do outside of removing all our grass?”

The crisis begins in the mountain peaks of northern California. Despite plentiful snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains this past winter, the first three months of this year have been the driest in state’s recorded history. The state Department of Water Resources now estimates that current snowpack stands at just 35 percent of average levels.

To supply nearly half the state, the Metropolitan Water District pulls water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project, a network of canals, pipelines, and reservoirs that brings water hundreds of miles down from the north. The project’s main reservoir, Lake Oroville, reached its lowest level last year since its creation in the 1970s. This network, which had been supplying an average of 3.2 million acre feet of water to Southern California over a three-year period, has delivered just 600,000 acre feet since 2020.

“The last three years have been the worst we’ve seen,” Hagekhalil said. “The old way of how we used to get our water through our snowpack is no longer available for us. The snow is melting. The snow is evaporating. And we’re not seeing the recovery we used to see before.”

“The changing climate is real.”

That predicament forced the new cutbacks, which apply to an arc of territory that includes parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino counties.

Living with drought is not new for California. It has been the reality on and off for two decades, revealing itself to residents in different ways. When Ali Zadeh dug a well on his property in 2015 to sustain his organic farm and plant nursery — spread over nearly 40 acres — it discharged some 1,800 gallons per hour. Now it yields 10 to 12 gallons per hour. He’s installed a drip-irrigation system to increase efficiency. He irrigates at night to avoid evaporation.

“Every year it goes down,” he said.

The former civil engineer for Los Angeles County, who fell in love with plants, lived among towering oak and eucalyptus trees, Chinese elm and olive trees. Three and a half years ago, the Woolsey Fire engulfed his property. Alone amid the blaze, he used three hoses to save his house. But his barn and accessory building burned down, his Lexus melted, and a thousand fig trees and three hundred pomegranate trees went up in flames. His property remains littered with piles of charred stumps and the remains of cut up trees.

The drought, Zadeh said, “is impacting everybody.”

To address the immediate shortage, water authorities say their goal is to slash outdoor water use for lawns and landscaping, to preserve supplies needed for drinking, bathing, and other indoor uses that impact health and safety.

The scale of these cutbacks is “not even close to anything that’s ever happened in the past,” said Pedersen, the general manager of the Las Virgenes district. “We’ve been through periods of shortage before, what you would call allocation or rationing, but never like this.”

This will likely doom many picturesque lawns that dot Los Angeles communities, according to those who sustain them in this desert climate.

“Stuff will die,” said Chet Starling, a landscaper who tends to several manicured lawns inside the Malibu View Estates, a gated community overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains. “It’s going to die.”

Starling stood in the shade on an emerald green lawn. In this neighborhood, monthly landscaping and water bills can both easily surpass $1,000 a month. An entire new landscaping job can cost half a million dollars.

“A lot of these people are going to lose a lot of stuff,” he said.

Some landscapers worry about their own futures.

“The work’s going to be gone,” said Francisco Espinosa, a 62-year-old landscaper who was mowing a patch of roadside grass. “I’ll have to look for something else.”

In more than two decades tending other people’s yards, he said he’d never seen such a dire water situation. Despite years of worsening drought and increasing water bills, most of his clients are still resisting replacing grass with artificial turf or drought-resistant vegetation that requires less water. Government rebates for residents to rip out their lawns exist here and in parched regions of the Southwest, such as Arizona and Nevada. Last year, Nevada outlawed patches of grass along homes and businesses deemed “nonfunctional.”

Only four of Espinosa’s 60 customers have switched to any artificial turf so far, he said.

Thomas Anderson, a security guard for entertainers who lives in another gated community in Calabasas, replaced his backyard grass with artificial turf because he was frustrated with having an $1,100 monthly water bill. The change lowered the bill by more than half. He also turned off the auto-refill on his swimming pool, topping it off by hand every couple weeks.

“A lot of these people out here, they just kind of feel entitled,” said Anderson, 46. “So they be like, ‘We got the money we’ll just pay whatever it is. Whatever the penalties is, so what? We’ll just write it off.’”

“They’re just going to suck up all the water anyway.”

For those tasked with enforcing the new austerity measures, the enormity of what water authorities are now demanding can seem overwhelming.

On his daily rounds for the water district, Gonzalez, the field customer service representative, sees an endless stream of wasted water. Overflow from swimming pools and saturated lawns pouring down the pavement. Broken valves and leaking pipes. Sprinklers running even on those rare days when it’s raining.

Since December, when the district began preparing for penalties and tracking residents who used an extraordinary amount of water — more than 150 percent of their allotted water budget — they have sent warnings to more than 3,200 homes. That’s nearly 15 percent of their 22,000 customers.

He also sees all the ways residents try to game the system. There are those who have been calling for reassessments of their property, claiming they should deserve twice as large of a water allocation, so when they have to cut in half their usage, they are unscathed. There are exemptions for hand watering trees, so the region doesn’t lose its canopy cover and exacerbate the drought. But what if some rich person hires a small army to stand around hand-watering all day?

In many of the areas that Gonzalez patrols, the amount people pay for landscaping could buy a condo in his own neighborhood more than 60 miles away.

“What we mostly see out there is complaining that the amount of water we’re giving them is not enough to keep their plants alive,” Gonzalez said. “And we’re trying to relay the message that the plants aren’t as necessary as human life.”

From the van, Gonzalez and his colleague, McNutt, eyed yet another trickle of runoff, this one near a row of California pepper trees.

“As you can see, asking 6.6 million people to change their behavior — when we’re just in one development and we’re seeing this right now — it’s, like, impossible,” McNutt said. “If you’re just being realistic about it, that’s an incredibly tall task.”

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