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Trading grass for cash: MWD has a winner on its hands

The Metropolitan Water District's decision to boost its cash-for-grass budget was a good start

The drought warnings have sunk in. So many Southern Californians want to rip out their water-hogging lawns that the Metropolitan Water District nearly ran out of money for turf removal rebates. In the last year, residents, businesses and public agencies filed more than 45,000 applications seeking well over $300 million in cash-for-grass incentives — more than triple the district's $100-million budget. Nearly a third of those applications arrived after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state's first-ever mandatory water use restrictions in April.

Faced with overwhelming demand, the MWD Board of Directors voted Tuesday to increase funding for turf removal by $350 million, a temporary boost intended to cover the surge in rebate requests through the end of 2015. The money should be enough to replace 172 million square feet of grass — which far surpasses Brown's call for California to replace 50 million square feet with drought-tolerant landscaping.

The infusion of money will help ensure permanent water reductions in Southern California, much as past droughts prompted the conversion to low-flow toilets and other more efficient appliances. Offering cash for turf removal helps people transform their lush lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes that can deliver water savings for years to come. And it helps drive a cultural and aesthetic shift as people come to see that a water-sipping native garden can be as lovely as a green lawn.

But the MWD, which is the region's water wholesaler, also needs to make sure it's getting the best bang for the customer's buck. The district made some smart tweaks to the incentive program, including putting a $6,000 cap on the $2-per-square foot rebate for residential properties, and reducing the rebate from $2 per square foot to $1 per square foot for commercial properties and capping their reimbursement at $25,000. The MWD should revisit the rules on a regular basis to make sure the rebates aren't overly generous and that they include reasonable caps to help stretch the cash-for-grass funding.

The MWD should also look at incentives to help customers capture and reuse water, through rain barrels and gray-water systems, and software to help people better track and manage their water use. As the run on turf removal rebates shows, Southern Californians are willing to invest in major changes to conserve water. They just need a little help getting started.

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