William Faus never thought he’d experience this kind of break-up. After more than 25 years, Mr. Faus decided to cut ties with his water guzzling grass. With the help of the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Landscape Rebate Program, last summer he converted 772 square feet of turf to low-water-use plants.

“It became evident that grass was at the top of the food chain in terms of water consumption, maintenance and cost,” he said.  Mr. Faus is just one of over 4,000 parties in the county to make the switch since 2014.

It wasn’t until 2014 that three years of below average rain led Governor Brown to declare the California drought an official state emergency

A few months later, the water district doubled landscape conversion rebates from $1 a square foot of turf replaced to $2, noting the urgency of making long-lasting conservation efforts.  Landscape irrigation accounts for about 50 percent of water use in Santa Clara County, and one of the easiest ways to save is by watering less. Switching to water-efficient landscapes can help.

Since the emergency declaration of January 2014, over 7 million square feet of turf has been converted into low-water use landscapes through May 2016. Santa Clara County has been a leader in the statewide crusade to protect our precious resource.

Santa Clara County residents really took the message to heart and the landscape conversion program grew rapidly with 1.1 million square feet converted in 2014 and over 4 million square feet in 2015. Before 2015 was over, budgeted funding for the program had run out for new applicants and a waitlist began.

For some time, the landscape rebate program, established in 2006, wasn’t a big hit. Application submissions didn’t exceed 400 a year, compared to the almost 2,800 per fiscal year in 2014-15 and 2015-16. But the last few years of minimal rain and record-breaking hot summers helped residents begin to realize California is due for a new norm.

Droughts aren’t a new phenomenon in our state, and with climate change on the horizon, scientists anticipate longer dry spells in the future.  Water is a finite resource, meaning there’s no way of producing more than currently exists, so developing long-term conservation strategies is key to our survival.

The water district actively pursues such strategies, like the landscape rebate program, and water supply management to meet the needs of a growing population. Based on staff’s projections, we will need to save almost 100,000 acre-feet by 2030. One acre-foot equals about as much water two families of five would need in year.

Through 2015, Santa Clara County conserved 64,000 acre-feet. An overwhelming majority of water savings (81 percent) came from indoor upgrades and fixtures, like upgrading to water efficient toilets, or fixing leaks. Yet landscape accounted for only 5 percent of that savings – an untapped conservation gold mine.

Over the next 15 years, we’ll need to save an additional 36,000 acre-feet a year. The prudent way to achieve our conservation goals is by making changes to our habits. If we don’t use water to keep our lawns green, then we’ve already cut up to 50 percent of our water use around the house.

Even before the drought, William Faus would replace the plants that didn’t make it each season. As the dry conditions continued, he became sensitive to new plantings, to make sure they were appropriate for our region.

Because we live in a dry climate and we know there are more droughts to come in the future, we recognize the significance of diversifying our water supplies. Currently, the water district is expanding its purified and recycled water program, a drought-proof water supply. By 2022, the water district hopes to almost double the supply of recycled water from 6 percent to 10 percent.

But between now and then, we are faced with optimizing the use of our current supplies, and expanding our conservation efforts. Reducing water use is a faster and less expensive way to make more water available.

To help those conservation efforts, the water district hosted a landscape summit, bringing professionals from the landscape industry and water agencies together to discuss unleashing the industry’s potential role in achieving water savings. But it’s going to take a mindset shift to get there.

“We are the problem,” said summit panelist Jeff Sheehan, president of Confidence Landscaping. “We’re stuck in our old-fashioned ways on how we deliver water to our plants.”

It’s not just how we deliver water to plants that needs to change – it’s the plants themselves. Emerald turf enclosed by a white picket fence isn’t sustainable in California, nor are tropical plants not native to our region.  But that doesn’t mean Californians can’t have beautiful landscapes. In fact a water-wise landscape offers an unlimited combination of looks, more than the ol’ green ever did.  It’s probably time to note that turf isn’t evil – in fact there are several types of water-efficient grass and methods to prevent overwatering.  But understanding is growing that native and low-water-use plants offer beautiful alternatives to enhance any landscape.

In the last year or two, nurseries have placed water-sipping lavenders and salvia plants towards the front of display areas and downplayed the water-loving impatiens. One local nursery representative who attended the landscape summit mentioned sales of annual plants – those that typically require more water – were on the decline.

The drought rang an alarm that we hope will continue to ring after it’s over. The landscape rebate program was both a response to the drought as well as representative of a developing lifestyle, said Karen Koppett, Conservation Specialist at the water district. That lifestyle sees water-wise gardens as more than a passing fad.

“In the last couple of years we have seen the start of a shift in the public’s view of water efficient landscapes and water wise-gardens as acceptable and beautiful,” said Koppett.

Like a rite of passage, the drought has changed us. Brown lawns aren’t the eye sore we once related to negligence and blight. Mulch and flowered shrubs in place of turf aren’t questionable, but rather a point of conversation.

After Mr. Faus converted his front lawn, his next door neighbor inquired about it, and shortly after, he too traded his turf for a water-efficient landscape . A few months later several neighbors followed suit. The ranks of the water-wise gardeners are growing.

Interested in what a water-wise landscape looks like? There’s no one size fits all. Peek at our album here.

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