On September 22, the Riverside City Council voted to put $1.5 million into its turf removal rebate program, a popular system that ran out of its $5 million in funding last May. Its popularity with locals relies heavily on its rather simple idea: allowing city workers to remove any water-sucking turf from residential and commercial lawns, convert them into drought-tolerant areas (like planting cacti) and giving the owners of such lawns a rebate or refund of 40 cents per square foot. This program is by no means unique to Riverside, as other other counties and cities have similar turf removal programs. However, Riverside’s program has a lower rebate-to-square-inch rate (for example, Long Beach’s Lawn-to-Garden initiative’s rebate rate is $2.50 per square foot of turf removed.). While this program may seem like a money hungry leech on public funds, it can actually do more good than harm — if the right regulations are in place.
Let’s face it, as a capitalistic society, we love money (Marx could never persuade us). While money is not necessarily an incentive that should be used to support long-term practices, (such as paying a child money for every time they receive an ‘A’), it can be utilized for creating quick and needed changes that do not require upkeep, such as the turf rebate program. If a homeowner chooses to have their green lawns uprooted for new cacti and succulents, they don’t need to routinely shower their lawn with water. For one rebate payment, homeowners can be productive in curbing water usage by taking away their largest water waste — aesthetic landscaping (In Riverside alone, “60 percent of residential water use goes to outdoor landscaping”). Also, no physical effort from the homeowner’s part is needed during the removal process, except maybe raising a pen to sign off on the rebate check (also, this rebate program can keep homeowners accountable for their new lawns via practices like yearly check-ups).
Beyond the mass appeal of money (is it not fun to make it rain?), this turf rebate program takes into account that many do not have the time or money to do such landscaping by themselves. One site recommends that homeowners should consider looking up rebate programs as their number one step before actually describing the tasks to relandscaping, such as buying plants and switching irrigation systems. Not all can afford to have drought-resistant lawns or technology, like toilets and washing machines, in their homes. Rebate programs like this one allow for more families to be water-efficient without having to worry about life-dependent costs.
Despite the benefits it provides, this program can be ineffective if manipulated by large companies. While there have not been reports of companies cashing in large sums of cash from the rebate program, there have been incidents of such in other areas. In Orange County, 17 country clubs received more than $100,000 from rebates. One country club even received a rebate of $1.9 million, which accounted for more than 10 percent of the rebate money paid out to Orange County homeowners and businesses. This club’s rebate is larger than the recent $1.5 million added to Riverside’s own program. To stop further abuse of the program, more oversight is needed in order for it to not only reach more homeowners, but to keep the program cost efficient. Perhaps there should be payment caps for companies or less money per-square-inch rebate for companies. Whatever the limits may be, it is vital for the existence of rebate programs to continue for the sake of fighting the drought — and not merely be a quick cash-in for a company’s piggy bank.
These rebate programs take into account the emergency of the situation by providing quick action and effective incentives as an attempt to curb the drought. However, this should not be the long-term solution for future droughts. Again, money is not a long-term way to instill habits, even if said habits are essential to the environment.
Critics say that much of these funds should be funneled back to educating the public on water efficiency. However, current methods of educating, such as pamphlets or lectures, do not cause the majority of the public to act. Perhaps, an education campaign on how the drought affect citizens can create the empathy needed to cause more individualized change without monetary incentive. How many of you knew that residents in Tulare County are already purchasing water bottles for their daily living activities like showering and cooking? Either way, we must keep in mind that while rebate programs are causing quicker changes in our residential water use, the very funds keeping the programs going can go as dry as our dear state.
Rebate programs —they’re a start but they shouldn’t be the end.