There are big changes coming to the look of public spaces in California – less lawn. After three severe statewide droughts in just 15 years, state leaders are realizing that resuming irrigation of purely ornamental turf grass in public spaces is unwise. That’s why in June the State Water Board extended its emergency ban on irrigation of ornamental turf with potable water for another year, even after last winter’s heavy snows brought initial relief from drought conditions. Now, a bill almost ready for the Governor’s signature would make the Water Board’s temporary ban permanent, effective in stages between 2027 and 2031.
AB 1572, authored by Assembly Member Laura Friedman (D-Burbank), is sponsored by NRDC, our non-profit partner Heal the Bay, and the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). These backers of the bill recognize, as Governor Newsom said in August a year ago, that “Climate change means drought won’t just stick around for two years at a time like it historically has – extreme weather is the new normal here in the American West, and California will adapt to this new reality.” Hotter and drier weather conditions are likely to significantly reduce California’s water supply, and sprinkling drinking water onto decorative grass leaves less water for essential purposes like cooking, bathing, and sanitation.
For more than 30 years, new urban landscapes in California have been required to be designed and installed to promote water efficiency. Nevertheless, large amounts of irrigated grass remain at commercial and institutional properties, much of it purely ornamental. And ornamental turf – sometimes called nonfunctional turf — consumes an enormous amount of drinking water.
With clear definitions, AB 1572 accommodates the continued irrigation of functional turf – grassy areas used for public gatherings, social events, ceremonies, sports fields, and informal recreation – while its limitations on irrigation apply to nonfunctional turf – areas where turf grass is primarily ornamental. Irrigation of turf with recycled water or harvested rainwater is not limited by the bill, nor is irrigation limited on any type of turf at single-family residences. But even with these exemptions, the bill is expected to save as much as 300,000 acre-feet of water per year in MWD’s 6-county service area, an amount comparable to the annual water use of about 900,000 households.
The impact of the bill will be felt gradually. The first properties covered by the bill will be any nonfunctional turf remaining at state and local governmental buildings, effective January 2027. Other institutional properties, as well as all commercial and industrial sites will follow in 2028. Properties administered by homeowners’ associations and similar organizations managing common interest developments will be covered in 2029. Lastly, ornamental turf at local government buildings in disadvantaged communities will be covered in 2031, to the extent that state funding is available to fund the cost of converting turf to climate-appropriate landscapes.