When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 25% cut in urban water use last year — and singled out lawns as a prime target — Southern Californians began replacing turf in record numbers, motivated in part by cash rebates.
Marveling at the success of the program, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California officials quickly went all in, boosting the turf rebate budget to $340 million.
In the upcoming fiscal year, however, there may not be an MWD-funded turf removal program at all.
In a proposed budget for the next two fiscal years, agency staffers recommended $59 million for conservation programs — $27 million next year and $32 million the year after that.
That allocation would probably be used to fund rebates for water-conserving devices such as high-efficiency toilets and washing machines, said Deven Upadhyay, an MWD manager.
As of now, there are no plans to reopen a turf rebate program, he said. It would be up to the MWD board whether to once again reimburse customers for tearing out their lawns.
"It was a one-time thing to try to ramp up attention on having more drought-tolerant landscapes while we're in the drought," Upadhyay said. "I don't think it was ever envisioned as we would be able to do that every year from here on out."
The MWD in total set aside $450 million this fiscal year for rebates, including $110 million for water-efficient appliances and devices. Officials expect that about $50 million of the $450 million will be left over because of canceled turf-removal projects.
The unspent funds could be used for future rebate programs, Upadhyay said.
"We're still working through the largest conservation program we've ever done, and anybody's ever done," Upadhyay said. "I think that our investment in conservation has been historic."
Some environmental groups say it's not enough. Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said dropping the turf rebate program would be a "huge missed opportunity."
"With so much uncertainty around our ability to replenish our reservoirs and groundwater basins over the next few years, this is not the time to back off investments in conservation and efficiency," Quinn said, adding that she'd recommend at least $100 million, given the agency's total budget. "We need to front-load those investments now while we have the public's ear."
Water officials have said that with the rebates, they hoped to spark enough interest in turf removal that residents and businesses would eventually decide to do it on their own, even without reimbursement.
But Bruce Reznik, executive director of environmental nonprofit L.A. Waterkeeper, said that's unrealistic, at least now. Reznik said he was "appalled" that the MWD was considering dropping or reducing funding for its turf rebate program.
"As soon as we have even a modicum of success in conservation, they walk back away from it," he said. "I think that provides a terrible message."
Upadhyay said the MWD wants to evaluate the success of the program before making another big financial commitment.
The proposed budget is being reviewed by the agency's finance and insurance committee and will be sent to the full board in April. The committee will meet again to discuss it Feb. 23.