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California Lawns Will Shrink in Size as State Faces Consequence of Slow Drought Response

Sprawling green lawns bordered by a white-picket fence have long been a staple image of a traditional American family home. However, in drought-stricken California, regulators are trying to change that ideal.

In an ordinance passed on July 15 by the California Water Commission, new construction residential properties will be regulated to limit turf to 25 percent of the property.

The regulations will apply to new construction properties with a landscape of more than 500 square feet as of Dec. 1, 2015. Additionally, existing landscapes over 2,500 square feet will be forced to cooperate with the new regulations if any major renovations take place.

The ordinance effectively limits lawn in new commercial settings.

The limit on turf may alter the look of the California neighborhood, experts say.

"It's the new norm, so it's going to be a hard transition for those that are used to having large amounts of turf," California Landscape Contractor's Association President Javier Lesaca said.

Some areas of California have dealt with restrictions for years, while others were just introduced this year. Lesaca operates his own landscaping company in Bakersfield, California, and he said the restrictions came as a shock to many.

"There's a better understanding now, of water, I think, because of the drought," he said. "People are understanding that we've got a limited supply of water and we've got to take care of it."

Rebate programs have popped up across the state, encouraging homeowners to rip up their turf and replace the water-consuming grass with drought-friendly plants, gravel and other alternatives. But that doesn't mean the water-saving trend is in full swing yet.

The ordinance could be the tipping point, Dr. Allison Lassiter, editor of "Sustainable Water: Challenges and Solutions from California," explained.

"Within the next five or 10 years, this [ordinance] would only be a thin slice of California's total developed landscape," she said. "But, it could be the start of something much bigger."

"There is evidence that when houses adopt drought-tolerant landscapes, there tends to be a spillover effect in the neighborhood, nearby homeowners are inspired and start to switch their landscaping, too," she said.

It's the drought version of keeping up with the Joneses.

For landscapers, the new terrain will yield the same profits as typical turf and it gives them more room to be creative for the client.

"Our customers are depending on us more, because they don't have that understanding of having a landscape that doesn't have any grass on it," Lesaca said.

But there will be a bit of a learning curve, for both the customer and the landscaper.

Lesaca estimates only 25 percent of the industry, including gardeners and licensed contractors, are educated on the upcoming changes. The gardening industry could be hit the hardest, he said, if the large lawns eventually disappear.

Though the historic drought has made news across the United States, there is still a desire for a traditional lawn, especially for Golden State transplants who come from the East Coast or greener areas. Clients from barren areas such as other areas in the Southwest are used to the rocky terrain and some are thrilled to see even a slice of turf in their yard, Lesaca said.

"In California, people love their landscapes. It's not going away, but it's going to change," Lesaca said.

The July revision to the ordinance marks one of the strictest changes since the original ordinance in 1993. While it goes into effect on Dec. 1 of this year, it will take time for the state to see widespread impacts.

Local water agencies have until the December cutoff to adopt the proposed model, or to implement one of their own that is just as stringent, Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractor's Association said.

The newly adopted ordinance is expected to reduce water use of a new home by 20 percent, the Department of Water Resources said. In the next three years alone, the department expects 472,000 single- and multi-family homes will add 20,000 acres of new landscape.