Soil and water

Fancy a lush garden requiring little watering? The East Bay utility has a discount for this.

Even in times of drought, you don’t have to resign yourself to a brown lawn or dingy garden. A Bay Area utility recently launched a “super discount” program to encourage people to convert their withered shrubs into a lush garden of not too thirsty native plants.

The East Bay Utility District, which provides water and wastewater services to many communities in East Bay, is offering customers $ 1.50 per square foot of sod transformed into sod. The rebate is in the form of a credit on your water bill and is capped at $ 2,000 for single-family residences and $ 15,000 for businesses and large residences. While EBMUD has offered discounts to save water usage for 20 years, the super discount launched in July doubles its standard offering.

While pundits are divided over the effectiveness of lawn discounts, East Bay residents are convinced by the idea.

“Since we piloted the Super Saver program, the number of lawn conversion requests has doubled,” said Charles Bohlig, utility director of water conservation. “And all other requests are for the super discount. ”

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

“Species like the western redbud, sage and native ground covers like ceanothus are the most popular,” 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 discounts are one of the cheapest ways for public agencies to reduce water use, said Alvar Escriva-Bou, senior researcher at the nonprofit California Water Policy Institute of Public Policy. Center.

But they are not always effective.

“Even if we never sprinkle another blade of grass on our lawns, at best we will only reduce California’s water use 4-5%,” said Donald R. Hodel, Emeritus Horticultural Advisor. environment and landscape at the University of California Cooperative Extension. .

Hodel actually sees more benefits in keeping lawns with turf, saying, “Considering the value they add by capturing carbon and mitigating higher temperatures, I think cityscapes – including Grass lawns – are worth every drop of water we put into them. ”

Escriva-Bou noted that rebate programs are not 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 to a native garden only makes a difference if people change their irrigation habits after the change. Hodel noted that the potential water savings disappear when people continue to irrigate their native gardens as they would with a sod lawn.

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

The program also requires applicants to take photos of the change and allow the utility to inspect the work. To receive the rebate, residents must also apply to EBMUD and complete the project within six months of its approval. In addition, they must follow best practices like mulching in sheets, composting to replenish the soil and planting in winter.

As for costs, both Bohlig and Dam estimate that DIY homeowners can convert a 500-square-foot lawn into a native garden for as little as $ 400. At the high end, hiring a professional landscaper and creating a well-maintained native garden can cost over $ 3,000 for a lot of the same size.

Hodel said significant water savings can be achieved even without converting the gardens. For example, instead of watering for five minutes a day, people can water their lawns twice a week for 10 minutes each. Dividing the 10-minute irrigation into two five-minute sessions spaced a few hours apart would allow the soil to absorb more water and minimize waste from runoff or evaporation. Such a diet helps turf and woody plants to develop deeper roots, making them more resilient in times of drought.

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

EBMUD is doing its own assessment of the rebate program to see if any changes are needed, Bohlig said.

More information on the Super Discount and other cost reduction programs is available at

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