LOS ANGELES — This is how officials here feel about grass these days: since 2009, the city has paid $1.4 million to homeowners willing to rip out their front lawns and plant less thirsty landscaping.
At least the lawns are still legal here. Grass front yards are banned at new developments in Las Vegas, where even the grass medians on the Strip have been replaced with synthetic turf.
In Austin, Texas, lawns are allowed; watering them, however, is not — at least not before sunset. Police units cruise through middle-class neighborhoods, hunting for sprinklers running in daylight and issuing $475 fines to their owners.
Worried about dwindling water supplies, communities across the drought-stricken Southwest have begun waging war on a symbol of suburban living: the lush, green grass of front lawns.
In hopes of enticing, or forcing, residents to abandon the scent of freshly cut grass, cities in this parched region have offered homeowners ever-increasing amounts to replace their lawns with drought-resistant plants; those who keep their grass face tough watering restrictions and fines for leaky sprinklers.
These efforts are drastically reshaping the landscape, with cactuses and succulents taking over where green grass once reigned.
“The era of the lawn in the West is over,” said Paul Robbins, the director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin. “The water limits are insurmountable, unless the Scotts Co. develops a genetically modified grass that requires almost no water. And I’m sure it’s keeping them up at night.”
The first five months of this year were the driest on record in California, with reservoirs in the state 20 percent below normal levels. The lawn rebate program here will save approximately 47 million gallons of water each year, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
But some residents worry that turf removal has already gone too far, robbing children of play spaces.
“It’s getting to the point where kids live in apartments, and they don’t even see grass, except in magazines,” said Betty Humphrey of Los Angeles. She raised her son with an expansive lawn, and said her family would not be pulling up its grass no matter how much money the city offered.
The city is already short on green space, said Humphrey, 63. “I don’t want to end up like New York or Chicago, with no grass.”
Las Vegas presents a model of how quickly the landscape can change when a city moves aggressively. In 2003, after a drought wiped out the city’s water resources, the Las Vegas Valley Water District offered what officials believe was the first turf removal rebate program in the country.
Since then, the water district has paid out nearly $200 million to remove 165.6 million square feet of grass from residences and businesses.
In the winter, watering is allowed only one day a week. Homeowners who take advantage of the city’s rebate must sign a deed restriction stating that even if the property were to be sold, grass could not be reinstalled unless the new owner paid back the rebate, with interest.
Residents of the country’s driest city take the rules seriously. “Neighbors turn each other in if they see a sprinkler running,” said Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
The city’s investment has paid off, Mulroy said. In the last decade, 9.2 billion gallons of water have been saved through turf removal, and water use in southern Nevada has been cut by a third, even as the population has continued to grow.
“The landscape in southern Nevada has changed dramatically,” she said. “If you had driven through a single-family development in the 1990s, it would have had grass all the way around. Today, you find desert landscaping. You see very little grass.”
Residential neighborhoods without lawns would have been considered downright heretical just two decades ago, said Diana Balmori, a landscape architect and an author of “Redesigning the American Lawn.”
But the idea that extensive grass lawns are wasteful has now taken hold with many people in this region, especially the young and environmentally conscious.