Sunday, 14 Jul 2024

Can Californians Keep Their Lawns?

The tremendous rains over the winter have filled California’s reservoirs, blessed the snowpack and brought waterfalls and ancient lakes back to life.

In some parts of the state, the precipitation has also revived something that was thought to have been a thing of the past: green lawns.

Last spring, when California was still in a worsening drought, Jeff Fox and Amy Bach let the grass in their San Francisco backyard go dry. They covered their desiccated lawn with bark chips, added some succulents and well-placed rocks, and welcomed their new, drought-friendly landscaping. They were among the thousands of people who abandoned the California dream of a single-family home surrounded by a lush, neatly kept lawn.

Then this winter, the Bay Area, like much of the state, was battered with enormous amounts of rain. By January, the lawn “came back fuller and greener than it’s ever been,” Fox told me. “We were totally taken by surprise.”

With the rainy season now over, Fox and many other Californians are wondering what to do with their lawns. Is it wise to water them, or should they be ripped out? For people who didn’t give up their lawns last year, does the revival mean they never have to?

I decided to ask some experts.

Julie Saare-Edmonds, senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Water Resources, was clear in her advice: Californians should still replace their lawns with climate-resistant landscaping “as we prepare for an eventual return to dry conditions,” she told me.

As The New York Times has reported, California’s water issues haven’t gone away for good; they have merely taken a back seat. A warmer climate has intensified the state's weather whiplash, the rapid swings between dry and wet spells. So the state will sometimes have stronger winter storms, as it did this year, but also longer and more intense droughts.

“Californians cannot let their guard down when preparing for a hotter and drier future driven by climate change,” Saare-Edmonds said in an email. “As a state, we must embrace water conservation as a way of life, rain or shine.”

Grass lawns are particularly water intensive. A majority of California’s residential water is used outdoors, largely to irrigate yards. Keeping nonnative plants alive in a state that doesn’t receive any rain during its hottest months is a tall order.

Jay Lund, a vice director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis, said that thanks to the wet winter, Fox and other homeowners like him could “have a partial lawn for free until the lawn dries out.” But after that, he would recommend replacing the lawn with native plants with low-water needs.

Laura Ramos, interim director of research and education at the California Water Institute at Cal State Fresno, also said that lawn owners could hold on to them this year, as long as they gave them up again next year. In other words: You can choose to revel in this year’s reprieve, but it’s best to get on with the tough choices you’ll eventually have to make.

“Water that is conserved in wet years is water that can potentially be saved for our water providers to use in future years,” Ramos said in an email. “Because future precipitation is uncertain, we would recommend that Californians continue their conservation efforts and make it a way of life.”

If you read one story, make it this

Why the largest homeowners’ insurance carrier in California stopped offering new coverage.

The rest of the news

Renewable energy: To help avoid rolling blackouts in the summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to buy power from offshore wind and geothermal sources, The Associated Press reports.

Airbnb tax: California lawmakers are considering a bill that would tax Airbnb and other short-term rentals in order to fund affordable housing projects, CalMatters reports.

Health care: Democratic legislators said they agreed to fine Californians without health coverage on the condition that the state use that money to offset health care costs for residents. Now, lawmakers say, Gov. Newsom is reneging on that deal, KFF Health News reports.


Leadership at the Los Angeles Philharmonic: With its music director and chief executive both announcing that they would be departing, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is looking to reinvent itself.

Hotel workers gird for a strike: As hotels gear up for the summer tourist season, union leaders are asking 15,000 hospitality workers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties to authorize a strike, The Los Angeles Times reports.


Overtime: A Fresno County jury has awarded two former employees of the Panoche Water District thousands of dollars in overtime pay, but their attorney said the amounts fall substantially short of what they were seeking, The Fresno Bee reports.


Growing budget: San Francisco’s budget is expected to reach $14.6 billion — a record — in each of the next two fiscal years, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Shelley Diamond, who lives in Los Angeles:

“Bishop is a gateway town to Eastern Sierra hiking, fishing, climbing and photography. It’s also an outdoorsperson’s shopping hub — Eastside Sports is considered one of the best in the country. Great Basin Bakery will fuel you as you make your way up the steep Sierra escarpment that crowns this cool little town.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

We’re approaching the midpoint of 2023. What are the best things that have happened to you so far this year? What have been your wins? Or your unexpected joys, big or small?

Tell me at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city where you live.

And before you go, some good news

Across California, thousands of students are graduating not just from high school but also from an educational experience that was deeply shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the time was undoubtedly difficult, some feel stronger and better prepared for whatever comes next, The Mercury News reports.

“Who gets to say that they went through a global pandemic and still got through school — and that it didn’t hold them back?” Ellis Chhourn, who graduated from Oakland High School last month, told the news outlet. “We were able to maneuver, find different ways to get an education and persevere through it. I feel like, because of all this, it makes our year special.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Johnna Margalotti contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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Soumya Karlamangla is the lead writer for the California Today newsletter, where she provides daily insights and updates from her home state. @skarlamangla

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