THE BLOG
04/10/2015 02:33 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

Lawns: It's Time to Rethink This Property Right in Southern California

For years, I've maintained that education, not government-sanctioned coercion, would be the best way to help us live within our water means. I don't believe that now. In fact, I believe we need to go a step further than the 10-35 percent mandatory cuts in water usage. We need to ban lawns in most places in Southern California.

Why have I changed my tune? Because this drought -- the worst in California's recorded history -- has consistently been in the news since 2012 and the majority of people have not substantially changed their water use. And if everyone engaged in the profligate water use of my city and many others, we'd have depleted our reservoirs and groundwater even further and be that much closer to our faucets running dry.

During this drought, I have consistently hoped for a different response from the people in my city. The overwhelming majority of its adults are highly educated. I thought that, as they learned about California's dire water situation, their behavior would substantially change.

It hasn't. How do I know this? I drive through town and look out the car window: house after house with a green lawn and water-thirsty ornamental landscaping, for miles. Of La Cañada's more than 7,000 residences, I've counted less than a dozen that have let their lawns go brown. La Cañada has the highest per capita consumption of water in Los Angeles County.

Lawns require about the equivalent of 100 inches of rain annually. La Cañada is blanketed with lawns though the city's roots are chaparral -- a native plant community beautifully adapted to the less than fifteen inches of rain per year that our region typically receives.

It seems that, in La Cañada, lawn is de rigeur for status and supposedly maintaining property values. All the new and refurbished homes for sale have a large swath of lawn out front, the real estate industry slow to shift to a more appropriate aesthetic for fear that property values might go down. But how much will California's real estate will be worth without adequate water for its population and economy? Which public services will we sacrifice due to the drop in revenues from property taxes?

In La Cañada, days after JPL Senior Water Scientist Jay Famiglietti sounded the alarm about California having only about a year of water left in its reservoirs and no contingency plan, sprinklers were running at houses all around mine, irrigating lawns that could have gone a week with no water before even beginning to look stressed, spewing water onto driveways, long chutes trailing down the street. What's more, I saw thousands of square feet of new sod lawn being installed. I wondered how people could not link what they do in their daily lives to all the information we have received about the drought. A recent Field Poll found that 94 percent of Californians surveyed think the drought is serious. My city must be part of the six percent that doesn't.

But my city is not alone. Drive through most SoCal cities and, despite the fact that we are in a drought emergency, you will still see green lawns and ornamental water-thirsty landscaping. Most people are not walking the talk. In California, 50-70 percent of residential water use is on landscaping, the vast majority of it feeding neither people nor wildlife. This is an obscene use of water when our farmers and wildlife are struggling.

And there is ample precedent that the drought may become much worse. From tree ring analysis and carbon dating in the eastern Sierra, geographer Scott Stine found that 10- to 20-year droughts are common in California's history and that a 200-year mega drought occurred about 880 years ago. The moist conditions of the 20th century were anomalous. The conditions that allowed California's population to balloon from 310,000 in 1853 to 38,000,000 today were unusual. The tree-ring record tells us so.

Yet, a week after Governor Brown ordered mandatory statewide water restrictions, I still see lawns being irrigated several times a week. This is not only a violation, but a real danger to the people of Southern California: About 90 percent of our water is imported and all our imported water lines cross the San Andreas Fault. When we have a major quake on the San Andreas, those water lines will probably break, not just where they cross the fault, but in many places along their lengths. Dr. Lucy Jones, LA's Earthquake Czar, estimates that it could take up to eighteen months to fix the lines. She also estimates that Los Angeles has only about three months of groundwater.

Given our water situation, it is insane to be irrigating lawns, drawing down our reservoirs and pumping precious groundwater to make up for the current shortfall of rain and snow.

Shouldn't conservation of imported water and groundwater be a societal good that trumps an individual's presumed right to do with his property as he pleases? Water is a precious public asset and we should not allow it to be squandered by individuals for an unsustainable aesthetic. Just as 9-1-1 is a collective asset that we do not allow to be abused by frivolous phone calls, water is a collective asset that we should not allow to be abused for frivolous landscaping.

In most places in Southern California, lawns are a criminal infringement on society's ability to provide water for basic necessities in an emergency and in the long term.

It's time we rethink our notion of lawn as a property right. It's time to get real in La La Land.

The views expressed are solely those of the author.