Xeriscape: Homeowners convert lawns for rebates

Harry Sontag waters a small landscaped area in his backyard where water-thirsty grass was replaced with pavers.

When Gilroy residents Harry and Laurie Sontag made the decision to replace two-thirds of their lawn with pavers last spring, they were not aware of the lawn-replacement rebate offered by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. They just hoped to conserve water and create a larger space for hosting outdoor parties and watching movies on an outdoor screen.The project updated approximately 400 square feet of lawn and was completed in two weeks.
“I really thought we’d miss the lawn or it would make our yard hotter or something; but the minute it was finished, we loved it,” Laurie Sontag said.
Rebate or no rebate, local homeowners like the Sontags are doing their part to help conserve water during the historic California drought by opting to replace their water-thirsty lawns with drought friendly alternatives known as xeriscaping.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which oversees Gilroy and Morgan Hill, encourages xeriscaping by offering rebates to households and businesses that replace landscapes that require lot of water, such as irrigated turf and swimming pools, with alternatives that use little or no water. The rebate is currently $2 per square foot. Some cities, such as Morgan Hill, add an additional dollar to help cover the pricey expense of land conversion projects.
“For single-family residential sites, the average area of lawn conversion is about 1,400 square feet,” said Marty Grimes, program administrator of the SCVWD communications unit.
That’s a $2,800 rebate for a lawn that size.
Grimes said customers choose how much of their lawn they want to convert, which qualifying plants they want to install, whether or not they would like drip irrigation, and how much “permeable hardscape materials,” such as gravel, to use. Customers usually receive the rebate checks three to six months after initial inspections.
SCVWD has issued more than 1,600 rebates since January 2014, according to Grimes, and two million square feet of turf has already been removed this year.
“And thousands more (rebates) are in various stages of the process,” he said.
Bill Faus, planning division manager for the City of Gilroy until his retirement in 2009, is one homeowner who took advantage of the rebate when he replaced 800 square feet of his front yard with drought tolerant plants and decorative cobblestone pathways. For his efforts, he was recognized by the city as a “Water Saving Hero” and received a rebate check that covered approximately half the total cost of replacing his lawn.
Faus enjoys his yard’s new look, especially a dwarf tree that will eventually grow to be 10 or 15 feet tall. But he’s even more excited about the resulting impact on his water bill.
“It’s going to take a couple years for the plants to fully come in,” he said. “But I’ve reduced my water bill by 50 percent.”
Outdoor landscaping accounts for about half of water use in residential areas, according to Grimes, making xeriscape an important part of drought management. But it’s not without obstacles. Some people really like green lawns, Grimes said, and won’t consider xeriscaping. However, he believes the tides could be starting to turn.
“We could be seeing a tipping point, where social norms will favor water- conscious landscaping,” he said.
David Stubchaer, operations manager for the City of Gilroy, said only a few Gilroy homeowners have taken advantage of the rebate program. He suspects the high costs of lawn conversion projects and hefty rebate paperwork may be to blame. His advice? Avoid the paperwork, skip the rebate, but still consider xeriscaping.
“Hopefully, more people will become more interested in doing xeriscaping whether or not they get a rebate,” Stubchaer said. “The best thing about xeriscaping is that it saves water long-term rather than just during the drought. There’s never a good time to waste water.”
Anthony Eulo, program administrator of the Morgan Hill Community Services Department, agreed with Stubchaer. He said xeriscape is not just about the drought. “These conversions really offer long-term savings that contribute to long-term water conservation goals,” he said. “They go beyond drought management.”
For the Sontags, converting their lawn to a low-water-use entertainment area was a great decision with positive results. They’ve noticed a considerable decrease in their water bill since completing the project … and an increase in quality family time.
“Having a bigger entertainment area really suits the way we live,” Laurie Sontag said. “I have no idea why we didn’t do that before.”
For more information on the SCVWD Landscape Rebate Program, call the Water Conservation Hotline at (408) 630-2554.