Lake Tahoe Program Pays Cash for Grass to Conserve Precious Water

Towns and cities across California are offering rebates to homeowners who rip out grass in favor of creative landscapes featuring drought-tolerant plants and efficient irrigation.

The South Tahoe Public Utility District is working to help homeowners convert their thirsty lawns to drought-friendly landscaping with the district’s turf buy-back program.
The South Tahoe Public Utility District is working to help homeowners convert their thirsty lawns to drought-friendly landscaping with the district’s turf buy-back program. (Courtesy of the STPUD)

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California’s record-breaking drought robbed Lake Tahoe of 182 billion gallons of water last year through evaporation alone. The lake’s temperature is now higher than ever recorded. Meanwhile, dozens of wildfires have charred acreage throughout the state and claimed the lives of two firefighters so far this season.

The South Tahoe Public Utility District (STPUD) is working to keep the twin crises of fire and water at the forefront of people’s minds, including by sending employees out for free “water-wise” house calls. Technicians like Lannette Rangel check in with homeowners who have especially high water bills to make sure they aren’t losing all their liquid assets to leaks.

Another resident-favorite conservation initiative is the district’s turf buy-back program. The idea is simple: grass requires lots of water and fertilizer to keep it green, and grass that dries out and turns California “golden” is ripe for fire. Why not try drought-friendly plants instead? Rangel visits customers’ homes to photograph and measure the lawn they want to convert and to help them apply for the rebate. She says demand for turf rebates this year is higher than it’s ever been.

“Given our unprecedented drought I thought this would be a good chance to help folks in a positive and encouraging way to save water,” Rangel told Earthjustice. She added:

“Environmental protection and conservation are vitally important, especially now.”

Replacing grass with low-water plants and a drip irrigation system can cut outdoor water use by more than 90 percent, but replacing an entire lawn can be pricey. The STPUD pays $1.50 per square foot of lawn replaced for up to a $3,000 rebate, provided homeowners use efficient irrigation, cover the ground with mulch to hold in moisture and choose plants that are native or drought-tolerant. (Hundreds of other cities in California have similar turf rebate programs and the state just launched a turf buy-back initiative at

Homeowners have to take out the grass themselves or hire a landscaper, but dozens are rolling up their sleeves. Residents must convert at least 400 square feet of lawn. Some opt for hardy succulents, some delicious edibles, some native grasses and wildflowers. Workers at the STPUD and other local agencies can help families find just the right native or adapted plants for Tahoe’s Mediterranean climate.

Kathy Haven, the homeowner whose yard is featured in the photos above, says the lawn conversion process is simple and fun.

“The whole family had a great time helping out with the project. Anyone with the time and energy can do these conversions,” Haven said. “And if you do it yourself, it doesn’t cost too much money.”

Jennifer Cressy of the Tahoe Resource Conservation District has advised many local families thinking of making the switch from grass to something greener. She says about half of homes in South Lake Tahoe are second homes, and out-of-town owners are especially excited about “xeri-scaping,”—creating a landscape that uses little to no water. But a truly Tahoe-friendly yard must also include 5 to 30 feet of “defensible space” around the outside of the house that are free of debris so firefighters have a chance to save the building from a blaze.

Cressy also advises against using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can run off into the street and eventually Lake Tahoe, fouling its famously clear water. Earthjustice is also fighting to keep personal and agricultural pesticides away from families and out of our nation’s waterways. Pesticides like neonicotinoids can kill the bees we need to pollinate our fruits and flowers—including the buttercups and goldenrods in your front yard.

With no end to the drought in sight and lakes across the state running dry, we can all do more to shrink our personal “water footprints.” Kicking turf to the curb is one good place to start.

About this series

Thirsty Thursdays is a weekly blog series exploring the historic drought in the western United States. In the ongoing series, we’ll share expert opinions, breaking news, compelling articles and the work Earthjustice is doing to protect water resources in a time of extreme water scarcity.

Don’t miss last week’s post: “Real Sustainability: Dry Farming in a Drought”.

A journalist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Heather was the associate editor from 2015–2017.