LOS ANGELES -- In the backyard of her home near the La Brea Tar Pits here, Kristi Bradbury called for her dog Lily. The yellow Labrador retriever bounded across a bright green lawn to greet her master.
As Lily darted across the turf, following her owner's calls, Bradbury didn't worry that the pet would wear holes in the grass as she'd done previously. Bradbury also doesn't fret about water bills related to this lawn. The "grass" in this backyard is fake.
Bradbury, 51, is among a growing number of California residents who are ripping out real grass and replacing it with artificial turf, succulent plants or other options that need less water.
This sunny part of California for many years has been seen as the land of swimming pools in the backyard and sparkling lawns in the front. But that's changing, according to water agencies, urban planners and residents. Homeowners and businesses are opting to go grass-free, motivated by the desire to pay less for water, to reduce maintenance and, in many cases, to reap cash incentives offered by local water agencies.
"I think everybody thinks everything is always green in Southern California, but people who don't live here don't realize, it's really a desert," Bradbury said. "It's only because you water it that you have all of this stuff."
The trend takes place as the Golden State struggles with a major drought. Signs posted above freeways alert residents: "Serious drought, help save water." Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has asked residents to cut back consumption 20 percent. Some local water districts have imposed mandatory cutbacks. Others, like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), San Diego Public Utilities and the Long Beach Water Department, are offering cash for residents to shrink their water use. They give residents money to take out grass and, in some cases, sprinklers.
LADWP in June raised to $3 per square foot from $2 per square foot the reward it gives homeowners who remove water-dependent lawns. It said it has a big incentive: of the 600 million gallons of drinking water delivered daily in Los Angeles, about half is used for outdoor watering.
The agency first implemented the rebate in 2009. Since then more than 8 million square feet of turf has been replaced, it said, saving 250 million gallons of water. LADWP is the largest municipal utility in the country.
"We hope this latest bump up in our rebate will encourage even more of our customers to switch out their gardens to a more California Friendly style," said Jim McDaniel, LADWP's senior assistant general manager for the water system, using a trademark for sustainable plants coined by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesale provider of water.
"Conservation has never been more important than in this especially dry year," McDaniel added, "and putting in native plants makes so much more sense for our Mediterranean climate, not to mention the cost savings for our water customers."
Long Beach, a suburb about 25 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport, has been offering $3 per square foot for more than a year. Water department staff there recommend increasing that to $3.50. Earlier it had offered $2.50 per square foot. Since the program started in 2010, it's resulted in the removal of more than 1.4 million square feet of grass.
San Diego gives $1.50 per square foot plus an additional 20 cents per square foot for installing drip irrigation. For the turf removal portion, it's issued 300 rebates with a total of 428,288 square feet of lawn removed and 46 acre feet of water saved annually.
Trending on the street
Bradbury and her husband, Bill, 53, opted for the synthetic turf in February of 2013 after Lily and a playmate dog, Georgia, wore a track in the natural grass. At the time, LADWP was offering $1.50 per square foot. That covered about $1,200 of the $5,000 cost of redoing her yard, she said.
"We knew that if we replaced it with sod, then it was going to mean having to water it all the time to keep it green," Bradbury said. "We knew that was going to be expensive."
They also wanted to avoid repeatedly replacing worn-out lawn, she said, but "they do say that watering is by far the most expensive part of your bill, more than anything else."
LADWP estimates that watering lawns adds about 50 percent to the average bill. With the average lawn replacement project about 700 square feet, customers who remove grass typically are saving about $270 per year, said Mark Gentili, supervisor in LADWP's Water Conservation Group.
The Bradburys now intend to replace the front lawn and are letting the grass there die, They'll eventually put in drought-resistant plants, Kristi Bradbury said, adding "just walking through the neighborhood, that seems to be the trend."
On Bradbury's street in Los Angeles' Mid-City neighborhood, about three-fourths of the homes have switched out lawns for landscaping that includes drought-tolerant native species, decomposed granite and bark, and artificial turf.
Jeff Young, 50, was one of the first on the street to install landscaping that needs little water. With help from a friend who's a landscaper, he put in decomposed granite, silver sheen shrubs, "snow in summer" -- a white flowered ground covering -- and blue fescue and orange bulbine plants. He received a free olive tree from the city after submitting a drawing of where it would be planted, showing that it would shade the home.
Young also owns a house in Long Beach and received $3 a square foot when he changed the landscaping there last fall. That paid for $1,200 of the work that was "almost a break even," Young said.
"I'm not a big fan of paying a water bill," Young said. "That seemed kind of crazy that you're just putting [water] back into the ground."
In another section of Los Angeles known locally as Mar Vista, so many homes have installed alternative landscaping that the neighborhood holds an annual walking tour to show off the yards. Mar Vista Green Communities this spring included 31 homes and two schools in six "clusters." Lawns feature cacti and other succulents and water capture systems. A few of the houses also have solar power.
Sarah Auerswald moved into her home here in 1996 when there was a lawn in the front. She took that out and has replaced it with a quilt of varying plants that include rosemary, jade, bird of paradise, bougainvillea, several succulents and an olive tree. The backyard also has been revamped.
A mother of two boys ages 11 and 14, Auerswald concedes her "urban jungle" is not perfect for families with children.
"It's harder for kids to play," Auerswald said. "You can't kick a soccer ball or put up a bouncy house."
She and her husband opted to go lawn-free before they had children, she said, first out of laziness and, second, to be "green." But she's firm on her views about watering lawns.
"When I heard the statistics, the amount of water that's wasted for watering lawns, it makes me sick," Auerswald said. "I don't understand why anyone has a lawn in a desert. ... I want to drink it. I don't want to waste it on the lawn."
Not at tipping point yet
There might be a generational view about the importance of real grass, Young said.
"My father, he likes the big, lush lawn," Young said. But for others in his age group, he said, "there's a change in thinking. What's the purpose of putting so much water on grass?"
Duane Border, a designer of landscape architecture in Los Angeles, said, "Clients are becoming much more aware of the environmental impacts of lawns.
"The lawn for a long time has been sort of an aesthetic solution, the ability to put green out in front of the house," Border added. But people have found that it's not used, and there are expenses with maintaining it.
"The idea of having a front lawn is kind of going away a little, because that's typically an area that's just for curb appeal," Border said.
Rick Silva, supervisor in LADWP's Water Conservation Response Unit, said that Los Angeles isn't quite at that tipping point where synthetic lawns are more popular.
"A big part of the [rebate] program was to change people's mentality, really change the market" away from the image of the big green lawn, Silva said. Many people still want that, he said, but "we are starting to change people's mentalities."
"People are seeing drought-tolerant [plants] as being the new norm," Silva said. "But we still have a lot of people to reach. I wouldn't say that we're close to any market saturation at this point because as you drive around L.A., there's still a lot of lawns."
Cutting back on water use is crucial for the future, he said.
"Conservation is how we're going to meet our future goals in Los Angeles," Silva said. "There is no new water for us to get."
"Cutting down the outdoor use is where the savings are in the future," he added. The rebate program started before the drought but has "gotten more attention because of the drought that we're in."
'We're on a mission'
Some businesses are joining the trend, too. In Malibu, located on the coast just north of Santa Monica, the Malibu Country Mart has been steadily replacing real grass with other landscaping. The shopping center located in the center of this small beach town sits on more than 6 acres and features seven restaurants and about 60 retail stores.
Three years ago the business removed 3,500 square feet of lawn and since then has taken out an additional 2,500 square feet. It's been replaced with a combination of synthetic turf, succulents and drought-resistant plants that include California blue sage and canyon prince wild rye.
"We're on a mission," said Julie Labin, director of sustainability at Malibu Country Mart. "Not only do you not have to water, you don't have to cut it, don't have to use fertilizer."
The mart began removing turf before local water department incentives were in place. Later it received $1 a square foot for grass it took out through a Los Angeles County Waterworks District program.
On a bright spring day, Labin walked along part of the site here, pointing out the environmental upgrades as people ate lunch at tables located near retail stores Ralph Lauren, Vince and 7 for All Mankind.
The center has installed LED lighting, Labin said, and three electric vehicle charging stations. Those often are full with a Chevrolet Volt or Tesla, she said. There are two 50-gallon rain hogs that catch precipitation. That's used to feed drip irrigation systems that water native plants and other drought-tolerant landscaping.
"Especially in Malibu, I think grass is on its way out," Labin said. "If you are a good steward of the environment ... whether it's self-imposed rationing or rationing by the state, I think we should all be rationing."
The company has opted to keep some grass because people come with dogs and children and sit on the turf, she said. Because synthetic turf still is relatively new, she said, there was a concern about how it would wear and the appeal of sitting on it. As well, she added, real grass keeps birds, butterflies and other creatures in the area.
"There are a very few places where I think grass still works," Labin said. "But the catch is if it's watered correctly."