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How a short-lived company turned thousands of LA lawns into gravel dead zones

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A local water-saving rebate program didn’t quite go as planned

When the Metropolitan Water District instituted a $2 per square foot lawn removal rebate program back in 2014, it was supposed to provide Southern California residents with financial incentive to save water by swapping green grass for more drought-tolerant landscaping. In many cases, that’s exactly what happened. But as Bloomberg reports, the rebate program also allowed a single company to make off with thousands of lawns, leaving poorly made gravel wastelands behind.

That company, called Turf Terminators, offered to re-landscape lawns for free, in exchange for the rights to claim the rebate credit with MWD. To make that arrangement financially lucrative, Turf Terminators worked extremely quickly—often finishing projects in a single day.

According to landscaping experts interviewed by Bloomberg, this wasn’t exactly a formula for creating healthy and successful drought-tolerant lawns (the owner of one gravel lawn installed by Turf Terminators admits that he’s resorted to watering his not-so-grassy lawn just to keep his low-consuming plants from frying in the sun).

A recent study of drought-tolerant lawns undertaken by researchers at USC found that such landscaping has the potential to raise temperatures in the area because they increase surface temperatures and don’t help to retain precipitation in the same way that grass does. Of course, the landscaping can also reduce humidity and bring cooler nights—possibly allowing Los Angeles to return to the more desert-like climate of its past.

As a water-saving measure, MWD’s rebate program has been criticized by City Controller Ron Galperin, who found in a 2015 audit that the now-discontinued incentive system was far less effective than other programs that prioritized water-efficient appliances. Turf Terminators closed up shop last year, but many of the lawns it has left behind don't seem to be much of an improvement on the brown, unwatered grass that has become a feature of so many other LA yards lately.