Landscapers, property owners prep for ‘nonfunctional’ lawns to go brown under new California rule
Beginning Friday , a ban ordered by California water regulators will prohibit irrigating decorative lawns around offices, hotels, hospitals and other nonresidential buildings as the state braces for a third year of drought.
But Duane Faloni’s North Bay landscaping crews already had a dry run at this a year ago.
When Healdsburg banned sprinklers for turf June 1, 2021, Faloni’s workers ran hoses to keep trees and shrubs watered.
“Losing a tree and replanting it can be a couple grand to $15,000-$20,000 a tree,” said Faloni, North Bay market vice president for Maryland-based contractor LandCare. “If you lose a tree, then you have dead plant material, and that can be a fire hazard. And if the owner has to do large-scale replacements, that may or not fall under insurance.”
On May 26, a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom said more needed to be done to conserve water, the State Water Resources Control Board decided irrigation must be cut off to “nonfunctional” turf around commercial, industrial and institutional buildings. The panel also required urban water suppliers to move to “Level 2” drought response, which assumes a 20% reduction in water supply and often includes limiting outdoor watering to certain days and times for residential irrigation.
Lawns and landscaping make up most of the urban demand on California’s water systems, and the governor’s office estimates that banning decorative lawns would save enough water to supply 780,000 households each year, the Sacramento Bee reported.
“Nonfunctional” lawn covered by the statewide ban isn’t used for public gatherings, such as picnics, according to the board’s rule.
Also included in the ban are common areas of homeowner associations, but not turf on individual members’ properties, according to Paul Piazza, water efficiency manager for Sonoma Water, which supplies urban providers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Because the ban covers irrigation with potable water, it doesn’t include systems that don’t treat well water, Piazza said.
Another caveat to the ban is that a limited number of turf substitutes can continue to get water, but only if water providers approve such substitutions and the dramatically lower application rates for such plants is adhered to, he said.
“This is good news, because it acknowledges the efforts that businesses have been making,” Piazza said.
In the past, North Bay water utilities have offered varying degrees of incentives to remove turf. Sonoma Water offered rebates to its customer utilities for the removal of 151,000 square feet of residential and commercial property turf last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2021.
While figures for its fiscal year weren’t yet available, utilities in the two counties have rebated removals of roughly 2 million square feet in the past few years, Piazza said.
That includes 385,000 square feet of lawn removals that Marin Municipal Water has rebated since June 2021 as the district faced the near emptying of its reservoirs up to the heavy fall rains, according to district spokesperson Adriane Mertens.
The district offered $3 per square foot in its Cash 4 Grass program to remove 339,000 square feet of grass at roughly 375 sites. Its Mulching Madness program used labor and materials provided by Conservation Corps North Bay to mulch 46,000 square feet of lawns at roughly 50 sites through last October.
The utility estimates that its system supplies about 1.5 million square feet of commercial nonfunctional lawns, based on a preliminary search of aerial imagery for municipal sites, roadway medians, nonplaying areas at golf courses and decorative areas at strip malls and retail establishments.
Now, Marin Municipal Water is notifying its customers that they need to do more.
“The District will be initiating robust outreach to ensure applicable entities in Marin Water’s service area are up to speed on the new state rule,” Mertens said in an email, noting an effort by direct mail and social media. “When reports/complaints of a violation are received, the District will follow up on those as is done with other water waste complaints (notify the customer with a written warning and gain compliance through education to the greatest extent possible). If subsequent violations occur, fines could potentially be issued.”
Mertens noted that state water board enforcers could also take action on violations.
At Basin Street Properties, which manages 2.5 million square feet of office space and 200,000 of retail in Sonoma and Marin counties, the Reno, Nevada-based company has taken a number of measures in the past few years to reduce water use outside and inside the buildings, according to Stephanie Burlingame, chief operations officer.