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Metropolitan could boost turf removal by $350M, but curtail size of rebate checks

After skyrocketing demand brought its popular turf removal rebate program to a halt two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Water District now may add up to $350 million to its conservation program, more than triple what’s been available so far.

Officials at the regional water wholesaler, which serves an area that’s home to 19 million people, say they’ve seen an  “unprecedented increase” in additional requests for turf removal projects since the Governor’s Executive Order. Last month Governor Jerry Brown set a goal that California replace 50 million square feet of lawn with less-thirsty landscaping; Metropolitan says that a square foot of lawn drinks about 42 gallons of water year.

Metropolitan has offered $2 a square foot for turf replacement to both residential and commercial customers. Homeowners have been the heavier users of the rebate so far, but commercial property rebate requests are on a pace to surpass the residential program soon. MWD says more than half of pre-approved funding requests – that is, for projects not yet completed – are from commercial properties, and the rate of applications from that sector is accelerating.

Those numbers have some Metropolitan board members concerned that commercial demand could pick the program clean. “What we’re trying to find here is a sweet spot between capitalizing on historic interest in turf removal and having a sustainable program,” says MWD spokesman Bob Muir.

A new proposal would lower the commercial rebate. Under terms recommended by MWD staff published Friday, the program could soon pay out half as much per square foot, one dollar, to businesses replacing their lawns, with a new cap of $25,000 a business could earn through lawn replacement each year.

The residential program would change, too. The new proposal contains a cap, limiting homeowner rebates to a maximum of 3,000 square feet or $6,000 over the lifetime of the property. Metropolitan says that the cap would include 90% of applications received so far.

But it could exclude discouraged L.A. homeowners Susan Tick and Scott Goldstein.

Five years ago they took out a small patch of grass – about 350 square feet -- in their Sherman Oaks yard when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power first offered a small rebate of a dollar per square foot.

Tick says at the time, the new rebate told her that watching your water use was important. “It was hey, wake up. The world has changed since you bought your home 28 years ago,” she says, standing in her grassy yard. “Back then, nobody thought about how much water they used, you could water at 3 in the afternoon when it was 100 degrees outside. Nobody covered their pools or anything. That was the reality.”

Even before the drought, she started changing some habits. She covered her pool, and set out buckets next to the shower to capture water, which her family members carried to plants in the garden.

“We tried to be responsible,” she said. Then the drought came. “Now we go back and we’re willing to take a really drastic step. We want to take out the rest of our grass.”

That’s another 5500 square feet. Right now the city of LA is offering $3.75, with $2 of that coming Metropolitan.

But another program rule might keep Tick from a rebate. Metropolitan is proposing that properties can apply for one rebate in the lifetime of the program.

The DWP ran LA’s program in 2010, with LA money, but that might count as previous participation.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power says it has been approving repeat customers through Metropolitan’s program on a case-by-case basis, but Tick and Goldstein’s application was kicked out.

“You have to be a bit of a squeaky wheel,” says LADWP spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa.

But until Metropolitan decides on new rules for rebates, Figueroa can’t say what would happen to Tick or other property owners, many of whom live in the arid San Fernando Valley.

The red tape doesn’t sit right with Tick, who says she has a question for the water officials offering the rebate.

“What are you trying to accomplish? If you are trying to get people to realize the gravity of this situation you need to take action, and don’t penalize the people who’ve done things before who really want to step up and do the right thing again in a big way,” she says.