Canceling turf rebates is counterintuitive

Hannah Luk | Daily Trojan

Hannah Luk | Daily Trojan

The Metropolitan Water District, the primary water supplier for nearly 19 million people in Southern California, announced this month that its popular turf replacement rebate program may not be continued next year, even though the program provides visibility for non-traditional water conservation and improves drought awareness. When asked about why the program might be canceled, MWD Water Resource Management manager Deven Upadhyay said, “It was a one-time thing to try to ramp up attention on having more drought-tolerant landscapes while we’re in the drought.”

The rebate program certainly did just that. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the MWD teamed up to offer a budget of more than half a billion dollars for conservation to span two years. Many of these programs, like the turf removal rebate, were effective. The funding for the MWD turf removal rebate itself was exhausted in late 2015 due to overwhelming demand. However, the MWD should continue offering rebates for water-wise landscaping in Southern California.

Despite the popularity of the turf removal rebate, the MWD has determined that it wants to focus on other rebate programs. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin further claimed in late 2015 that the turf rebates “had value as a gimmick,” but that real water savings would have to be evaluated before the MWD rebate was continued or expanded. While the turf rebate was active, the LADWP offered a $1.75 per square foot rebate and the MWD offered a $2 per square foot rebate. LADWP continues to offer its share of the rebate, but MWD has decided that it may no longer contribute to this particular water conservation method.

What the officials and administrators of the MWD seem to overlook is that the turf rebate program did not operate in a vacuum. The program and its associated ad campaigns spurred public awareness of the drought and water conservation methods. Gov. Jerry Brown also issued an executive order almost two years ago that demanded a 25 percent reduction in water usage. Considering that the residents of California have almost — but not quite — reached this goal, every method of water conservation should be considered for continuation, especially the most popular programs like the turf removal rebate.

The largest concern that city and MWD officials cite is that though turf removal is estimated to save 350 gallons of water per dollar spent on rebates over the product’s lifetime, water-efficient appliances are believed to save nearly five times as much. While this may be true, these officials do not consider the social impact that a prevalence of drought-resistant landscapes would have on those who have not converted their lawns and lifestyles. Washing machines are not usually visible from the street — lawns are.

The turf rebate project, while not the most cost-effective water-saving measure, played a substantial part in reducing California’s residential water use. For this reason, and because the water-wise changes that it facilitates are so visible to passersby, the MWD should continue to offer turf removal rebates to the 19 million Californians that it serves. Doing so will assist in reducing water usage, and any unspent rebate funds can be funneled into other programs at the fiscal year’s conclusion. Continuing the turf rebate program isn’t a matter of pure financial efficiency. There are conservation goals that have to be met, and it is worth investing in every source of contribution.