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Los Angeles should lose its lawns, some say

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. Is California done with lawns? Starting this month, millions of homeowners in the southern part of the state are under mandatory water restrictions. It is the third consecutive year of drought. No one knows if lawns will survive. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: The new rules only let Michael Ossen water his yard twice per week for just a few minutes. But he has no plans to comply.

MICHAEL OSSEN: I am unapologetically a water user in this yard.

WELLS: He's standing in his yard under the shade of fruit trees. His grandfather planted them when he bought the house nearly 50 years ago. It's in a Los Angeles suburb. He gestures towards azaleas, dahlias and the dogwood tree in the back. These plants aren't native to California. They grow better in the south, so they need lots of water to survive.

OSSEN: If I sit here and I'm running my sprinklers, is someone going to come over and cuff me and take me away?

WELLS: OK, probably not. Most residents aren't facing more than a fine if they don't comply. And Ossen is prepared to pay extra to keep his lawn alive. He already pays $175 just to water it every month. He is holding tight to this 20th century symbol of wealth and the American dream. In fact, he's got plans to rip up the concrete driveway and put in more lawn.

OSSEN: I grew up saying that you can judge a man by his lawn, so the lawn ain't going.

TED STEINBERG: You know, if you weren't with the program and building your turf, well, you know, you weren't actually living up to what it meant to be a man.

WELLS: Ted Steinberg wrote a book about the history of lawns. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University. He says judging a man by his lawn is a decades-old tradition. The end of World War II brought new housing developments, single family tract homes surrounded by weed-free, bright green lawns. But it's no longer sustainable in places like Southern California.

STEINBERG: There's no question that the perfect lawn, as I've described it, is an ecological boondoggle.

WELLS: Angelinos are facing a decision over the fate of their yards. Can they cling to this 1950s ideal of American homeownership?

ROGER GRAY: That is not the question we should be asking, is how do I keep this thing that does not belong here and for which there are not enough resources?

WELLS: Certified California naturalist Roger Gray calls lawns here unnatural. He sweeps flower petals from his stone walkway and gives a tour of his own yard. He re-landscaped about two years ago and replaced his lawn with drought-tolerant plants. His is an example of what a native southwestern yard can look and smell like.

Oh, yeah.

GRAY: Yeah. It smells like...

WELLS: Wow.

GRAY: ...Mountains, doesn't it?

WELLS: He's watered these plants six times total in two years.

GRAY: And you're standing in here, and some of these plants are taller than you are.

WELLS: Yeah.

GRAY: Yeah. And we've had a drought.

WELLS: Gray isn't the only one doing this. The Metropolitan Water District in Southern California offers rebates to residents who replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping. They've helped remove 200 million square feet of grass. Gray remembers previous droughts, when people went so far as to spray paint their lawn green. This is not a solution, he says.

GRAY: And if the first time that there was a big drought and people had to paint their lawn green wasn't a wake-up call, and if the drought six years ago wasn't a nudge in the ribs, this is your last chance, you know? This is the moment where it's time to make the change.

WELLS: So far, only one water district in California is threatening to actually limit water for those who violate the rules. And the water restrictions don't apply everywhere. The lawns in Bel Air might start fading, but the lush green lawns lining the streets next door in Beverly Hills are safe for now.

For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Los Angeles County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caleigh Wells