California businesses and institutions must stop watering ornamental lawns with potable water under laws passed by the state legislature.
The bill now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. Newsom’s office declined to comment today but previously called for an irrigation ban that led to a similar emergency measure that will be in effect until next June.
The bill, authored by Rep. Laura Friedman, D-Burbank, would ban the use of potable water (water that is safe to drink) to irrigate ornamental grasses or pastures in businesses, institutions, industrial facilities and certain developments. The lawn could only be watered with recycled water.
The goal of the legislation is to force companies to tear down their lawns and replace them with landscapes that use much less water.
Residential yards would not be affected by the ban, nor would cemeteries, parks, golf courses and sports fields where people play, picnic and gather. Other plants such as shrubs, flowers, trees and landscapes that are irrigated with recycled water are also unaffected.
The ban would be implemented gradually, starting in 2027 for government properties and in 2028 for other institutional, commercial and industrial properties. Common development areas such as homeowners’ associations, mobile home parks and some senior housing complexes would have until 2029.
The bill, AB 1572, passed the Senate without debate on Monday by a vote of 29-10, and the final amendments were approved by the Assembly on Tuesday by a vote of 55-18. The final 28 votes in both chambers against the bill this week came almost entirely from Republicans, with only two Democrats opposing it.
If Newsom signs the bill, California would follow in the footsteps of Nevada, where lawmakers have banned the use of Colorado River water to irrigate dysfunctional grass in southern Nevada on certain commercial, multifamily, government and other properties .
The bill, co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, received significantly more support than opposition, unusual for a bill that addresses the arid state’s most precious.
The opposition, Friedman said, “was not fierce.”
“No one I know in Los Angeles has called me with concerns. No owner has contacted me,” he said. “Everyone says, ‘Yeah, okay, we’re doing it, we’re starting to move in that direction.'”
As of September 1, the California Business Roundtable, the California Landscape Contractors Association and the Institute of Community Partnerships’ California Legislative Action Committee were listed as opponents.
In response to an executive order issued by Newsom during the recent drought, the State Water Board banned the use of potable water to irrigate ornamental grasses in commercial, industrial and institutional facilities, effective June 2022. The ban has been extended until June 2024 unless the board extends or lifts it before then.
The board is also developing new water conservation rules that would require municipal water utilities to ban watering non-functional lawns with potable water starting in 2025, spokesman Edward Ortiz told CalMatters.
“I think it’s going to be difficult having a huge lawn that no one uses and constantly watering it…You’re going to stand out, and not in a good way.”
– MATT KELLER, SANTA CLARA VALLEY WATER DISTRICT
Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association, said the bill is unnecessary because of the state’s drought emergency measure.
Giarde said he fears people will replace the grass with rocks or other hard landscaping objects, “creating heat islands,” he said. Grass, he added, “has its place. “If people would stop pouring it over it, that would be really great.”
Matt Keller, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves about 2 million people in the heart of Silicon Valley, said he hopes the bill will increase pressure on companies to remove weed.
Since June 2022, the district has received more than 100 reports from community members about businesses that were not in compliance.
Lawns that landscapers call “lawn grass” are thirsty and use more water than any other vegetation tested in California, according to a state report.
The Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, estimates that ripping out grass and replacing it with less water-intensive crops would reduce California’s water use by 1 to 1.5 million square miles per year, enough to feed about 4.5 million people take care of. According to the report, companies, institutions and industrial facilities could lose around 400,000 square kilometers of nature reserves every year.
The large Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a major water importer and supporter of the bill, estimated that eliminating nonresidential ornamental grasses across Southern California would save about 300,000 square miles per year, enough to power about 900,000 homes.
Under the bill, property owners would determine which lawns are considered “functional,” and water utilities and local governments would be charged with enforcing the law.
The State Water Resources Control Board may grant three-year extensions if necessary under certain circumstances. And federally designated disadvantaged communities will not have to comply until 2031 or when they receive state funding, whichever comes first.
Owners of particularly large properties will have to certify to the state every three years from 2030 or 2031 that they meet the requirements.
It is unclear whether California’s current temporary ban has actually reduced risks for businesses. Local water utilities and municipalities are tasked with enforcing the law and are not required to report progress to the state.
Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, a water supply think tank in Oakland, said she believes awareness of the current ban and enforcement has been “relatively low.”
He said he hopes to see more lasting changes under the bill’s longer timelines and certification requirements for larger property owners.
“I think the legislation is really designed to transform our landscapes, not just an emergency,” Cooley said. “It means that when there is a drought there is not as much pressure to reduce consumption because our supplies are in better condition.”
Non-functional lawn: “You know it when you see it”
Charles Bohlig, water conservation officer with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, one of the state’s largest water utilities, said it’s difficult to delineate the conservation impact of a measure like the state’s temporary irrigation ban on ornamental grasses.
Another challenge for East Bay County under the new legislation will be identifying all non-functional lawns in its 322-square-mile service area.
Bohlig said the district is exploring the use of satellite imagery, which it already uses to survey large landscapes and provide irrigation recommendations to customers based on weather and evaporation. However, smaller, uneven lawns in front of businesses may be more difficult to see from above. And identifying turf as functional or non-functional requires additional coordination with customers and communities.
With underperforming grass, “you know it when you see it,” Bohlig said.
“We feel that if you’re just standing on it while mowing, it’s clearly not a viable piece of grass that should be maintained as such,” added East Bay County Commissioner Andrea Pook.
The new legislation would help counties work with customers to make these landscapes less thirsty. “There is special legislation here that is now the law of the land. How can we work together to transform your landscape into a native garden while protecting your trees? said Böhlig.
For some, ongoing droughts and landscaping discounts have been a greater incentive to pull out grass than the current temporary irrigation ban.
Many water utilities, such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the City of Long Beach and Valley Water, offer discounts for grass extraction to their customers. This is not currently the case in the state of California.
But landscape reforms are costly for companies and institutions.
According to the Metropolitan Water District, converting grass into plants that require less water costs about $10 per square foot.
“We feel that if you just stand on it while mowing it is clearly not a functional piece of grass that should be cared for as such.”
– ANDREA POOK, EAST BAY MUNICIPAL UTILITY DISTRICT
Alameda recently spent about $204,000 to rip out 6,500 square feet of lawn in front of City Hall and replace it with native and other water-saving plants. Public Works Director Erin Smith said the city expects a $7,000 refund from the East Bay District.
An even larger, 29,000-square-foot project will begin in October at Alameda’s City Hall West and is expected to cost about $462,000. Smith said he expects a refund of $15,000 and hopes the city’s water bills at the two locations will ultimately decrease by about $8,500.
“It’s good to know that the return on investment is in sight. But given the cost of construction, it takes several years to really see that,” he said.
Nevertheless, the changes are already noticeable, he said. “The new landscape is rich in color and texture.”
That’s what Swanee Edwards likes most about the newly transformed landscape at her Woodland Estates retirement community in Morgan Hill. The 72-year-old board member and resident said the lawns around his clubhouse are long overdue.
“Now we don’t get nasty letters from the city saying there must be a big leak somewhere,” Edwards said.
The retirement community tore down about 26,000 square feet of grass and replaced it with crape myrtles, roses and native plants, costing about $104,000, Edwards said. Woodland Estates received more than $60,000 in reimbursement from Valley Water, part of which was shared with the city.
“It’s just beautiful compared to what we had there before,” Edwards said. “The second thing we like best, of course, is the water that we save and that is not wasted by running into the sewers and onto the streets.”