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.

Some turf has been replaced with drought-tolerant plants or cobblestone. Mulch has been applied to exposed soil to retain moisture. Plant irrigation sprinklers have been replaced with drip lines, changed out some landscapes for cobble and installed evapotranspiration controllers that automatically adjust watering to local conditions. The company had liked to do three or four flower color changes at its buildings but now has gone with drought-hardy perennials.

“We do plan to have turf brown out,” said Stephanie Burlingame, chief operating officer. The company has been working with its landscape contractors, Cagwin & Dorward and LandCare, on drought-response plans, anticipating that such measures as the turf-irrigation ban were coming.

“Doing a full turf removal requires us to put in new plants and watering them, and we can’t water that much.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic started in early 2020, the commercial property company had started replacing fixtures such as toilets with low-flow models and automatic sensors. Recent measures include cutting back on pressure washing and window cleaning. In the past five years, the company has called for annual irrigation system checks in early spring to detect broken sprinkler heads and lines before the systems are turned on.

“We’re really looking at everything,” Burlingame said.

The company also shut down the water feature at its Theatre Square residential and retail development in central Petaluma because it lost a lot of water to leaks and evaporation.

The company is working with local arts officials on how to adapt the installation, which had local contributions. An interior water feature at its Oak Valley Business Park office development near the Santa Rosa airport was removed, but some of the company’s larger outdoor features such as those at Stony Point Office Center and The Lakes in Santa Rosa challenges because they have equipment that can be sun-damaged if fully drained but create a nuisance if the water is left stagnant.

“We’re postponing drain-and-clean (tasks) for the features,” Burlingame said.

The company has called in WaterWorks to assess how to adapt the features, some of which are fed by wells, to use less water.

But regardless of how much rainfall the North Bay gets, there’s been a move by local water suppliers in recent years toward “common sense” tightening of some uses, such as hosing down sidewalks and other hardscapes, Piazza said.

“Water-waste restrictions are in effect in Sonoma and Marin counties year-round, drought or no drought,” he said.

Before the water board acted, Newsom had asked urban providers to move to Level 2, but only half of the state population represented by such utilities had moved into conversation measures before the panel’s action, according to the Sacramento Bee.

However, urban water providers in Sonoma and Marin counties last summer implemented varying Level 2 aspects of their plans, including Healdsburg’s move a year ago, according to Piazza.

Newsom in July 2021 had called for voluntary reduction of water statewide by 15%, but water use by March of this year was 7% more than a year prior and up nearly 19% since the beginning of the pandemic, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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