TIME society

My Lawn Is Worse Than Yours

Gardeners remove grass plants trimmed ahead of planned watering reductions in Beverly Hills, Calif. on April 8, 2015.
Damian Dovarganes—AP Gardeners remove grass plants trimmed ahead of planned watering reductions in Beverly Hills, Calif. on April 8, 2015.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

What's a Southern California homeowner to do with high water bills, a historic drought, and no consensus on what to plant instead?

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

As the drought deepens and the state water board revises its plans for mandatory restrictions this week, California’s lawn culture has flipped, dirt-side up. With outdoor watering being called a society-threatening scourge, your local community pillars, once celebrated for lawns and gardens even greener than their money, run the risk of becoming social outcasts.

On the other side of this flip is your columnist, who is allergic to lawn watering and pretty much all other forms of lawn maintenance. Now, at the dawn of this new and drier California era, I find that I have become—quite unexpectedly and unintentionally—fashionable. Not to mention an accidental avatar of civic virtue. It used to be that if you didn’t keep your lawn a pristine green, you didn’t care. Now, you don’t care if you do.

“More and more people want to move away from having to spend weekends mowing lawns,” Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips told KQED recently, thus heralding my own allergy to lawn care as socially progressive. She also said: “It’s sort of a learning moment for all of us.”

And not just because we hate thinking of water as finite, but also because of the fervent devotion so many Californians have to beauty and design. I hope my own story can serve as beacon, parable, and perhaps comfort to those who may be wondering whether life can go on when their green grass turns to dust.

When my wife and I bought our home in South Pasadena nearly four years ago, schools for our little kids—not lawns or drought—were on our minds. The house itself was, and remains, a mess. But we also inherited several lovely fruit-giving trees and an unpretentious Bermuda grass front yard served by an automatic sprinkler system. For our part, we put in grass behind the house where a collapsing garden shed had stood.

Then came the water bills—they were shockingly high, nearly $200 monthly. We cut back on watering to twice a week. We installed low-flow toilets and a new washing machine. But the bills stayed high. The problem, as it turned out, was our small city, which had neglected to update its aging water infrastructure for decades. To replace that failing infrastructure, the city has increased rates more than 170 percent over the past seven years.

So at about this time last year, I stopped watering altogether.

Money was the biggest motivator. Lack of time was another—with three kids and a demanding job, lawn care was never going to be a priority. The drought provided a justification for a shut-off. And my own travels through this water-stressed state, particularly in the Delta and the San Joaquin Valley, reinforced my determination to avoid watering my Southern California lawn.

As a descendant of Okies, I was prepared for the outside to go full Dust Bowl, but that didn’t happen. In back, the new lawn has survived just fine, with some bare patches. (To keep trees alive, I’ve given them bath water). In front, the changes have been dramatic. On the south side of the lawn, the grass still grows, still green, protected by shade from a neighbor’s trees and a magnolia on the street. But the sunbaked north half slowly turned yellow, before giving way to dirt patches. Weeds—some carrying beautiful yellow flowers, some with nasty stickers that hurt my hands when I pull them—have gotten a foothold. Relatives and neighbors agree: My lawn looks awful.

At first, I felt guilty. But that didn’t last. Two people across the street sold homes for well over their asking prices, so clearly my lawn wasn’t hurting property values. My 6-year-old, who has deeply absorbed all the water conservation messages in the California media, began taking note of all the homeowners with sprinklers pouring water onto sidewalks and streets on his short walk to kindergarten; I didn’t want to turn the water back on and risk his wrath. And my bills have come down, though they still remain high by the standards of many Californians—about $70 a month.

Now, with the full force of the State Water Resources Control Board and Gov. Brown’s mandatory 25 percent reduction behind me, I feel pride when I look at what’s outside my front door. When the state disclosed that my city had some of the highest water use rates in the state, and would be required to cut down by 35 percent, my pride swelled into moral superiority. Some of us need an intervention, but not in my household.

Yes, I can hear the horrified screams of the gardeners and the horticulturists and the homeowners associations and the good neighbors across our state: Not watering at all is not an answer! You can’t just let your lawn become an eyesore! I know. I know. The change in lawn culture will require more from me.

But what exactly is required? And how on earth am I supposed to balance my responsibilities to my neighbors, the state water supply, the environment, and the family pocketbook?

After a couple of months of investigating the possibilities, I have no clear answers to those questions.

Official and expert opinions contradict themselves. Many water agencies want to pay Californians to take out their turf and replace it with drought-resistant landscaping, which sounds good. Except that the reimbursement rates cover only a fraction of the cost. And if you do what’s most responsible and aesthetically pleasing, it could run $20,000 for even a small lawn like mine, which is about $19,500 more than I can afford to spend on this.

There are some very cheap options, but those typically replace your lawn with unsightly landscaping and hard surfaces that can add to the “heat island” effect of cities. To confuse things further, some experts argue that the right kind of grass, maintained with very low levels of water, can be better for the environment than some drought-resistant landscaping.

Reading the fervent and contradictory advice, one can see that the arguments during this shift in lawn culture will be as much about ideals of beauty and neighborhood as about water. That’s fine, but for the legions of us who don’t care about looks and don’t have time, the water worthies need to get their stories straight and give clear 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.

Read next: California Could Become a ‘Dust Bowl’ Like 1930s Oklahoma

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

California Could Become a ‘Dust Bowl’ Like 1930s Oklahoma

Dry earth is seen between rows of grapevines in Napa, California
Elijah Nouvelage—Reuters Dry earth is seen between rows of grapevines in Napa, California April 9, 2015. The state is in the fourth year of one of the worst droughts on record.

Thousands of families were forced to leave areas around Oklahoma because of drought and bad farming. Many went to California

As California enters a fourth year of drought, it’s possible that the state could experience conditions like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

At a presentation by the Assn. of California Water Agencies, climatologist Michael Anderson said, “You’re looking on numbers that are right on par with what was the Dust Bowl,” the L.A. Times reports.

In the 1930s, drought and bad faming methods destroyed 100 million acres of farmland around Oklahoma and forced families to leave, many for California. Their journey was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The organization raised awareness about the impact on the state’s farmers, who have seen a loss of $1.5 billion due to lack of water for cultivating their crops.

[L.A. Times]

TIME California

California Sheriff Investigates ‘Disturbing’ Video of Suspect Being Beaten

The San Bernardino County, California, Sheriff’s Office opened two investigations Thursday only hours after an NBC Los Angeles helicopter recorded deputies using a stun gun on a man on a stolen horse and then beating him repeatedly.

In the video, a sheriff’s helicopter can be seen landing next to the man, who falls off the horse and is stunned by one of the deputies. Two deputies begin punching him in the head and kneeing him in the groin. Then, three others arrive and join in the pummeling, which lasts about two minutes …

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The truth is, California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.

By Steven Johnson in Matter

2. Uber isn’t selling rides. It’s selling data.

By Ron Hirson in Forbes

3. A blind scientist wants to reinvent how the vision-impaired ‘watch’ movies.

By Chris Colin in California Sunday

4. Cute little details may make an app “delightful,” but they’re crowding out thoughtful design.

By John Pavlus in Co.Design

5. These giant robot traffic signals/red-light cameras are actually making the streets of Kinshasa safer.

By Mark Hay in Good

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

California Drought Leads to Historic Toilet Policy

The California Energy Commission mandated on Tuesday that new toilets and faucets sold in California must conserve water

California officials working to combat the state’s four-year drought are taking aim at everyday practices that use billions of gallons of water each year: flushing toilets and running faucets.

The California Energy Commission took emergency action on Tuesday by mandating that all toilets, urinals and faucets sold in the state must conserve water. That means only low-flush toilets and low-flow sinks will be allowed for sale after Jan. 1, 2016, regardless of when they were manufactured. The mandate applies to both public places and private residences.

“We’re seeing serious dry spell here in California,” says Amber Beck, a spokesperson for the commission. “And we need to make sure we are not only saving water right now but in the coming years.” These regulations come less than a week after Governor Jerry Brown imposed the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions, aimed at cutting the state’s usage by 25%.

The commission’s action will set historic efficiency standards for appliances in the Golden State, which are much stricter than the voluntary standards laid out in the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense conservation program. As of 2016, all urinals sold in California can use only one pint of water or less per flush; the current standard is one gallon, while the EPA will put its WaterSense stamp of approval on any urinal that uses half a gallon or less.

The commission estimates that the new standards will save 10 billion gallons of water in the first year, and more than 100 billion gallons as old appliances are replaced by new ones over the coming years. As of January, there were more than 45 million faucets, 30 million toilets and 1 million urinals operating in California.

Read next: California’s Water Crisis by the Numbers

TIME Environment

The Number of Sea Lions Washing Up on Californian Shores Is Higher Than Ever

Sea lions
Rich Lewis—Getty Images/Flickr

Rising sea temperatures mean less food for the mammals

Emaciated sea lions are showing up on beaches in Southern California at unprecedented rates, because rising sea temperatures have reduced the populations of sardines and squid that form their main diet.

The National Marine Fisheries Service reports that a record-breaking 2,250 sea lions, largely young pups, have washed ashore in California so far this year.

That’s double the number seen in 2013 (which was previously the worst winter season for the mammals) and 20 times the stranding rate over the same period during the past decade, Reuters reports.

Read: Why Hundreds of Starving Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up in California

In March alone, 1,050 sea lions — the highest number recorded in a month — were stranded according to scientists tracking their rates at an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

California’s rescue facilities have been overwhelmed by the surge, with teams working frantically to rehabilitate the starving animals.

[Reuters]

TIME Environment

California Governor Defends Water Restrictions That Largely Spare Farms

California Drought Reveals Uneven Water Usage
Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images Aerial view overlooking landscaping on April 4, 2015 in Ramona, Calif.

"I can tell you from California, climate change is not a hoax"

Governor Jerry Brown defended his state’s new mandatory water restrictions on Sunday as critics claim they largely spare some farms that consume much of California’s water.

The state’s farms account for 80% of its water consumption but only 2% of its economy, according to the think tank Public Policy Institute of California. But Brown asserted in an ABC News interview taking water away from farmers could create a number of problems, including displacing hundreds of thousands of people and cutting off a region that provides a significant fraction of the country’s food supply.

“They’re not watering their lawn or taking long showers,” he said. “They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America and a significant part of the world.”

At the end of the interview, the Democratic governor reiterated a broad warning after four years of drought. “I can tell you from California, climate change is not a hoax,” he said. “We’re dealing with it, and it’s damn serious.”

[ABC News]

Read next: California’s Water Crisis by the Numbers

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

California’s Water Crisis By the Numbers

California Drought Rice Harvest
Rich Pedroncelli—AP Rice harvested by Mike DeWitt is loaded into trucks near Davis, Calif., Oct. 10, 2014. DeWitt is among the Sacramento Valley farmers who planted 25 percent less rice than normal because of water cutbacks.

Almost two-thirds of water is used for agriculture — but Gov. Jerry Brown's measures apply mainly to urban areas

California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday imposed historic water controls on the drought-stricken state. But who will the burden of conserving water fall upon? Here, nine numbers that explain the new measures:

25%
The amount by which cities and towns across the state must reduce water use under Brown’s new regulations. That would total about 487.5 billion gallons of water over the next nine months.

50 million square feet
The area of lawns throughout the state to be replaced by “drought tolerant landscaping,” in partnership with local governments. The plan will also require university campuses, golf courses and cemeteries to make “significant cuts” in water use, Brown said.

38 billion gallons
The amount of water used every day throughout California according to 2010 estimates, more than any other state in the country.

16.6%
The average share of water consumption in the U.S. that goes toward domestic purposes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, such as washing dishes or drinking water.

80-100 gallons
The amount of water the average American goes through a day, much of it in the bathroom, according to the USGS. Showers use on average two to two-and-a-half gallons per minute. A full tub holds an estimated 36 gallons. Washing your hands and face take a gallon, while toilet flushes in older models use three gallons. (Newer ones use closer to one and a half.) Washers also go through a significant amount of water: about 25 gallons a load in newer models.

70 gallons
The amount of water used by San Francisco Bay Area residents after Brown asked Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20%. Some in Southern California continued to use some 300 gallons a day on amenities such as lawns and swimming pools.

$10,000
The possible daily fine for those of California’s 400 local water agencies who fail to meet the governor’s 25% target.

61%
The average share of the nation’s water that is used for agricultural purposes, including irrigation and livestock (Another 17.4% goes to thermoelectric power plants). In California that share is about 80%.

76,400
Number of California farms and ranches, which produced $21 billion in agricultural exports in 2013, according to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, including $7.6 billion in milk and $5.8 billion in almonds. More than 400 different crops and commodities are grown in the state, accounting for 14.7% total U.S. agricultural exports. The measures announced by Governor Brown on Wednesday do not apply to the agriculture industry.

 

TIME Environment

3 Maps That Explain Why California Is Restricting Water

California Drought
Rich Pedroncelli—AP Houseboats float in the drought-lowered waters of Oroville Lake near Oroville, Calif., Oct. 30, 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1, 2015, ordered sweeping and unprecedented measures to save water in California.

Extreme drought combined with higher temperatures and very little snow

California Gov. Jerry Brown issued mandatory water use restrictions Wednesday for the first time in the state’s history, ordering towns and cities to cut water use by 25%, which will affect everything from farms to golf courses to residents’ front lawns.

The state has been experiencing drought-like conditions since 2011 but in the last few months, things have gotten even worse. Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range has hit all-time lows for this time of year while temperatures remain above average, making an already dire situation worse. Below are three maps showing just how dire things have gotten throughout the state.

MORE: California’s Water Crisis by the Numbers

1. Extreme Drought Conditions

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, 99.85% of California experienced drought conditions as of March 31, affecting 37 million people; 40% of the state is currently considered to be in an “exceptional drought.”

 

California drought
California drought key

 

 

2. Snowpack at all time-lows

Snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range at this time of year would normally begin melting and become part of the state’s overall water supply. But snowpack is at roughly 5% of its April average, which can be seen in these maps by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One researcher with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service told the USA Today that snowpack statewide is “the worst in a century.”

Snowpack 2011
Snowpack 2015

 

3. Temperatures above average

On top of all that, temperatures have been higher than normal in the first three months of the year, accelerating persistent drought conditions and leading to increased evaporation of the water sources that remain. Some places in the state over the last few months have experienced temperatures more than 10 degrees above normal, according to the NOAA Regional Climate Centers.

 

California average temperature

 

TIME cities

Los Angeles Will Spend $1.3 Billion to Fix Its Crumbling Sidewalks

The deal is a major win for disabled Angelenos

The City of Los Angeles said Wednesday that it will budget $1.3 billion over 30 years t0 repair broken sidewalks, resolving a lawsuit that claimed the walkways were in such poor condition they violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The suit argued that the sidewalks relegated disabled Angelenos to second-class citizenship because they were so cracked as to be not traversable and thus interfered with the independence of disabled people, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lillibeth Navarro, executive director of the group Communities Actively Living Independent and Free, called the deal a “major win” for people with disabilities.

Starting next fiscal year, the city will spend $31 million annually on the project, with the number rising to $63 million in future years. The first focus will be on parks and heavily trafficked walkways like those outside hospitals.

A federal judge still needs to approve the exact terms of the deal.

The reason sidewalks fell into a decrepit state is because when federal money the city relied on for maintenance dried up, property owners were unwilling to raise taxes to cover the expense.

It is estimated that 40% of sidewalks need repair in the City of Angels.

[Los Angeles Times]

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com