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Want a lush garden that needs little watering? East Bay utility has a rebate for that.

on September 30, 2021

Even in a drought, you don’t have to resign yourself to a brown lawn or a drab garden. A Bay Area utility recently started a “super rebate” program to encourage people to convert their wilted shrubbery into a lush garden of not-too-thirsty native plants. 

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water and wastewater service to many communities in the East Bay, is offering customers $1.50 per square foot of converted turf lawn. The rebate comes as a credit on your water bill and is capped at $2,000 for single-family residences and $15,000 for businesses and larger residences. While EBMUD has offered rebates to conserve water use for 20 years, the super rebate started in July doubles its standard offer. 

While experts are divided on the effectiveness of lawn rebates, East Bay residents are sold on the idea. 

“Since we have piloted the super rebate scheme, the number of lawn conversion applications have doubled,” said Charles Bohlig, the utility’s water conservation director. “And every other application is for the super rebate.” 

The program also has boosted business at Grand Lake Ace Garden Center in Oakland, where sales of native and drought-resistant species have jumped 20%, according to manager Eric Dam. 

“Species like western redbud, salvias, and native ground covers like ceanothus are the most popular ones,” he said.

In the first year after planting, native species need water once every three to five days to firmly establish their roots. After that, they require minimal watering and, in some cases, no artificial irrigation at all.

Lawn rebates are one of the cheapest ways for public agencies to reduce water use, said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center.

But they are not always effective. 

“Even if we never water another blade of grass on our lawns, we will cut down only 4 to 5% of California’s water use at best,” said Donald R. Hodel, emeritus environmental and landscape horticulture adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension. 

Hodel actually sees more benefit in keeping turf lawns, saying, “Considering the value they add by capturing carbon and mitigating higher temperatures, I think urban landscapes — including turf lawns — are worth every drop of water we invest in them.” 

Escriva-Bou noted that rebate programs aren’t always cost-effective. He pointed to a 2016 analysis of lawn rebates in Southern California that found the cost per unit of water saved was double what was estimated. 

Converting a lawn into a native garden only makes a difference if people change their irrigation habits after the switch. Hodel noted that potential water savings go away when people continue to irrigate their native gardens like they would a turf lawn. 

Bohlig said irrigation habits are difficult to change. “We find that residents take some time to adjust to a straw-colored garden in the drier months, even though some of these native plants are supposed to look that way,” he said. “So they end up overwatering their native gardens in the summer. That is why we do site visits and consultations with residents to better advise them.” 

The program also requires applicants to take pictures of the change and to allow the utility to inspect the work. To receive the rebate, residents also must file an application with EBMUD and complete the project within six months of its approval. Additionally, they must follow best practices like sheet mulching, composting to replenish the soil and planting in the winter. 

As for the costs, Bohlig and Dam both estimate that DIY homeowners can convert a 500-square-foot lawn into a native garden for as low as $400. On the higher end, hiring a professional landscaper and putting together a well-curated native garden can run over $3000 for the same size plot. 

Hodel said a significant water savings can be realized even without converting gardens. For instance, instead of watering for five minutes every day, people can water their lawns twice a week for 10 minutes each. Splitting up the 10 minutes of irrigation into two five-minute sessions spaced a few hours apart, would allow the soil to absorb more water and minimize waste due to surface runoff or evaporation. Such a regime helps the turf and woody plants grow deeper roots, making them more resilient in dry spells

“They may lose some quality, or color, but they recover quickly once you can irrigate them again,” Hodel said. 

EBMUD is doing its own evaluation of the rebate program, to see if modifications are needed, Bohlig said.

More information about the super rebate and other cost-saving programs is at ebmud.com

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