Thirst to Conserve: An Overwhelming Response to Valley Water Agencies' Turf-Buyback Programs Has Left Residents and Businesses in LimboWritten by Kevin Fitzgerald
So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end.
Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1.
“As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it.
“The bad news is there are people who didn’t get their applications in right away—and (people) who maybe got them in pretty quickly—who missed out on the funding. Of course, those people are disappointed. We’ve stopped accepting any more applications.”
The picture is brighter in CVWD territory, albeit still challenging. The agency allotted $950,000 specifically for turf-buyback rebates this fiscal year, and in two months, CVWD customer requests have burned through almost all of those funds—yet the applications keep coming in.
“We have seen such an overwhelming response to our programs,” said Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation. “It’s been amazing. In fact, we’re already almost out of money, and we’ve had 158,972 square feet of grass removed in our district just since July 1 of this year.”
The CVWD has offered some form of a turf-buyback rebate program to its customers, in an effort to decrease the amount of water-guzzling grass, since 2010. “In the first three months of fiscal 2014—that was July through September—we received applications for 2 million square feet of turf conversion,” CVWD conservation coordinator Dave Koller said. “It took us four years previously to reach the 3-million-square-foot total.”
The severe drought conditions prevailing in California have definitely impacted valley residents’ awareness of their use of water resources, and as a result, the turf-buyback program has become more popular.
“I think it’s because of the declaration of the drought emergency by the governor in January, and our board-mandated water restrictions in August,” Koller said. “Combined with the public outreach and publicity on the drought and turf conversions, I think it’s all just coming together. It’s a good thing, because once turf is converted, it saves 70 to 80 percent of the water that turf would need.”
What plans do the agencies have to increase funding to meet the unexpected demand? On the CVWD front, Engel said, “We’ll be going to our board on Oct. 28 to see if we can get a little more funding.”
Will there be a decisive vote at that meeting?
“Every time I’ve gone to the board for increased funding, they’ve been agreeable to it,” said Koller. “They put a high value on conservation, so I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”
(Editor's note: The CVWD board did indeed approve more funding at that meeting. According to a news release: "The additional funding of $1.8 million will sustain the turf conversion, smart controller and nozzle programs until approximately Dec. 31, 2014. After this funding has been depleted, new applications for landscape rebates will be accepted beginning in the next fiscal year.")
Ruark said the DWA board “has sent the issue for research to the finance and conservation subcommittees and asked for them to come back with recommendations as to what they’d like to do. So that’s where we are right now. I don’t have dates as to when it will come before the board again or what the process will be from here.”
The DWA’s response to the buyback situation has irritated Paul Ortega, a longtime Palm Springs resident, a landscape design consultant and the co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley.
“There’s a large group (of buyback applicants) that has been told they have been placed on a wait list—or (in) what I call ‘the limbo phase,’” Ortega shared. “They’ve been told that they are not going to get a site inspection, which is a critical part of the DWA’s application process, because without that happening prior to the work, if a customer should decide to move forward with their own turf-conversion plan, they would disqualify themselves from participation in the DWA rebate. This is unfortunate, because the DWA is not giving these people any incentive to stay engaged in the DWA turf-conversion effort.”
Ortega added: “I did meet with DWA board president Craig Ewing. He believes that a subcommittee recommendation will be made to the board to increase the turf-buyback funding allotment by at least an additional $250,000 or more in the very near term. But that action won’t address the other applicants who represent some $800,000 more in requested rebate funds. He’d like to see the board approve funding now that’s sufficient to cover all of the pending turf-buyback applications.”
What does the DWA advise their “limbo phase” customers with unaccepted applications to do? Wait to do the work until they can get an application approved? Move forward at their own expense?
“Those who can wait may do so,” Ruark remarked. “Those who cannot and can afford to do their conversion without a rebate should do that. Each homeowner should do what is best for them.”
Ortega believes that stance is inadequate.
“For the DWA to put so much effort into this whole initiative, only to shut the program down a couple of months after launch due to lack of funds, is really unfortunate,” Ortega said. “If they don’t give their ‘limbo phase’ customers some reason to hang in, then they’re not going to—and they’re going to be pissed. And they already are. I hear it a lot. People are disappointed, you know?”
Updated on Oct. 30 with info from the Oct. 28 CVWD meeting.