Resist water usage with drought-resistant plants

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Growing up with relentless rain and snow in Massachusetts, I never experienced the kind of panic that currently surrounds California’s water shortage. But after a short time at Occidental, I have quickly come to realize that Occidental, in conjunction with the greater Los Angeles community, needs to drastically reduce the amount of water it wastes on landscaping.

According to a shocking 2014 report by Pacific Institute, well over half of California’s urban water is used outdoors for watering landscapes, washing cars, spraying sidewalks and filling pools. It is evident that the demand for aesthetically pleasing yards is hindering California’s sustainability, as many residents choose to prioritize the appearance of their property over the health of the environment. But maybe what these proud lawn owners need is a little incentive, in the form of a paycheck.

After mandating that all L.A. residents comply with water conservation legislation enacted in June, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) piloted a program to encourage residents to replace traditional grass lawns with drought-tolerant plants that reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation—a practice called xeriscaping. According to LADWP, its Residential Drought Resistant Landscape Incentive Program will pay homeowners $1 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with drought-tolerant plants, mulching or water-permeable hardscapes.

This program could be a milestone in L.A.’s conservation effort. The LADWP claims that one square foot of traditional lawn needs approximately 50 inches of water per year, while drought-tolerant plants only need about 15 inches or less—the amount of rain that L.A. receives in a year. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to convince all Californians to turn off their sprinklers and plant cacti and sagebrush.

Disagreement between local and state governments complicates the water-saving efforts of some homeowners. CBS reported that, while the California government fines homeowners hundreds of dollars for over-watering their lawns, some city governments, such as Glendora, have threatened residents with fines up to $500 for “unsightly” lawns. Glendora city officials sent out fliers warning residents that a browning lawn must be changed within 60 days to one that is “watered, mowed, trimmed and maintained.” A subsequent newsletter did not mention the fines, but still urged residents against unsightly lawns.

Brown grass is ugly, but by no means worth a $500 fine. Luckily, xeriscaping can solve the inconsistency in city and state water-use expectations. Xeriscapes are both water-efficient and aesthetically pleasing: desert plants such as aloes, agaves, matilija poppies and freeway daisies provide a much more colorful and interesting landscape than basic green grass.

Occidental has begun to replace grass with drought-resistant plants, but the college could be doing more. According to the Occidental Magazine, the entrance of the college will soon be ornamented with 39 drought-resistant olive trees and a bioswale—a gently-sloping channel covered with vegetation such as sand dune sedge—to capture, filter and percolate rain back into the ground. On the other hand, the Marketplace and Johnson Hall are still surrounded by water-hogging rose bushes. If Occidental were to xeriscape the entire campus, we would stand out as a leader in water conservation.

Though xeriscaping challenges the hallmark cookie-cutter lawn of suburbia, it is the landscape of a sustainable future. As an immaculate lawn has long been an indicator of privilege, it may take some elbow grease to convince lawn conservatives to rip up their turf. But the elite symbolism of this unsustainable, and selfish, practice is outdated. Everyone needs to let go of their pride and rip out their grass.

Mel Devoney is an undeclared sophomore. She can be reached at devoney@oxy.edu or on Twitter @MelinaDevoney.