Turf Rebates – one country club got $1.9 million – the rebates amount to a transfer of wealth, he said – they often go to the rich, who can afford to pay for new cars, pricey solar panels and landscape contractors

During the brief heyday of Southern California’s turf removal rebate program, 17 Orange County country clubs, cities and homeowners associations got rebate checks of more than $100,000 for tearing out turf and replacing it with drought-tolerant plants, according to records.

The country clubs were part of a flood of rebate applications from homeowners and businesses that drained several hundred million dollars from the Metropolitan Water District’s reserves in a matter of months, leading the district to institute caps on maximum rebates and, eventually, shut down the program for lack of funds.

The six-figure payouts – in the county’s largest payout, one country club got $1.9 million – were funded largely by unexpectedly high water sales in recent years and came in the form of bills collected from homeowners, businesses and public agencies from Los Angeles to Santa Ana to San Diego.

The turf removal rebate program was lauded as a way to get Southern California unhooked from its water addiction. Lawns suck up vastly more water than what water officials dub “California-friendly” landscapes of succulents, desert plants and native shrubs, and replacing them was seen as key to surviving the current, four-year drought.

Though the program existed for years, interest in the program skyrocketed after Gov. Jerry Brown declared California was in a state of drought in January 2014.

And it made a major splash in early 2015 – a trajectory that correlates with the severity of the drought, the public’s awareness of it and the amount of money available for those willing to sacrifice their yards.

In 2010, when the program was young, payouts for Orange County homeowners and businesses were $1 per square foot. For the first nine months of 2013, the rate was lowered to 30 cents per square foot. But in October 2013, it increased to $1, and in May 2014, it increased to $2.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) uses Metropolitan funds to operate the program for all of the county except Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton, which go directly through Metropolitan.

Since starting the rebate program, MWDOC has processed rebates for the removal of 9.5 million square feet of turf.

APPLICATIONS SOAR

In January 2014, MWDOC was getting 10 rebate applications per month. By September, it was getting 800 per month. And by April 2015, it was getting 1,600 a month, said Joe Berg, the director of water use efficiency at MWDOC.

To keep up with demand, Metropolitan added $350million to the conservation budget in May of this year, bringing the total conservation budget for all of Southern California to $450 million. Of that, $390 million was devoted to turf rebates.

By early July, officials had shut down the program because demand outstripped even the increased amount of cash.

“Frankly, we weren’t prepared for that incredible increase in participation,” Berg said. “When the program exploded in participation, it was not financially a sustainable program for us. We could not rebate our way out of the drought. We needed to put in some cost controls.”

And that’s what MWDOC and Metropolitan did. Before May, homeowners and businesses could get as much rebate money as they had approvals. A handful of Orange County country clubs and golf courses wrangled payouts of hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for ripping out hundreds of thousands of square feet of turf.

A few homeowners also collected outsize payments: more than 25 Orange County homeowners received checks for more than $10,000 each.

PAYMENTS CAPPED

In May, officials instituted caps of 25,000 square feet per year for businesses and 3,000 square feet total for residences.

The nearly $1.9 million payout for El Niguel Country Club, with its lush golf course tucked in a Laguna Niguel valley featuring more than 7,000 yards of terrain, three lakes and a rambling creek, was by far the highest rebate in Orange County. It accounted for more than 10 percent of the rebate money paid out to county homeowners and businesses.

El Niguel General Manager Eric Troll did not respond to messages seeking comment.

No other business in Orange County collected more than $1 million. The next highest was just over $500,000. The highest residential rebate here was about $32,000.

Homeowners were issued 10 times as many rebates as businesses. But the businesses collected more money total – more than $9.9 million compared with just over $7 million. The average commercial rebate was also more than 14 times higher than the average residential rebate.

In Orange County, 345 commercial rebates were handed out, and the average was more than $28,800. Homeowners got roughly 3,500 rebates, with an average of $2,014.

After El Niguel started its headline-making renovation, MWDOC’s phones started ringing off the hooks with applications from other golf courses. Some didn’t apply in time to get rebates.

PROGRAM MAY RETURN

Just a handful of country clubs getting massive payments is “exactly what we want our caps to avoid in the future,” Berg said. He added that the rebate program will likely come back in a different form.

“We have a very limited budget and we want to stretch that budget over as many people as possible. We don’t want to give the majority of money to just a few sites,” Berg said.

There are advantages to offering fewer, larger rebates, however. It takes less administrative time and money to process fewer applications, and a gallon of water saved is a gallon saved, regardless of where.

But when more people get more rebates, it expands exposure to alternative, drought-tolerant landscapes, water district officials said. When a batch of homeowners gets rebates and plants succulents and other less-thirsty plants in a visually appealing fashion, their neighbors might be inclined to redo their own landscapes, with or without a rebate.

That’s exactly what happened in The Reserve, a gated community in San Clemente where MWDOC studied the impact that offering landscape rebates had on the community. Several years after a limited number of homeowners were given the incentive to redo their yards with drought-tolerant plants, neighbors had followed suit without an incentive.

And while payouts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars may be shocking to budget-conscious ratepayers, they aren’t a handout, said UC Irvine professor of planning, policy and design Dave Feldman. Golf courses and country clubs have paid water bills for years, likely at very steep, tiered rates. The rebate money comes from a pool that includes those water bills.

“You’re not just returning money. You’re returning money in a way that’s going to have a lasting and durable impact,” Feldman said.

LOW-INCOME HELP?

Any way you cut the checks, given California’s long love affair with water-sucking grass, the breakup is bound to be expensive.

“You have to start somewhere. We’ve invested in a certain kind of aesthetic in the region for many, many years, when water wasn’t such an inhibiting factor as it is today,” Feldman added.

The next step, he suggested, might be finding ways to open the turf rebate program to low-income homeowners. Currently, homeowners must first pay contractors to redo their lawns – the rebate comes later.

The turf rebate program has not been without its critics. Brett Barbre was one of several Orange County representatives to the Metropolitan board to vote against increasing rebate funding in May.

A staunch conservative, Barbre said he opposes rebates for other environmental causes such as electric cars and solar panels. The rebates amount to a transfer of wealth, he said. They often go to the rich, who can afford to pay for new cars, pricey solar panels and landscape contractors.

The rich also happen to be the patrons of exclusive country clubs.

“I just think it’s wrong to be going to a private country club. That’s not a proper use of ratepayer dollars,” Barbre said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening for people when they see where the money is going,” he added.

Additionally, the water savings brought by turf rebates cost more per gallon saved than other rebates, such as toilets and showerheads, Barbre noted. Water experts say, however, that water-efficient appliance rebates have nearly run their course in California.

“There’s a sense that a lot of the water savings for indoor has already been picked,” said Matt Heberger, a research associate in the water program at the Pacific Institute, an environmental group in Oakland. “That’s why these turf replacement programs are attractive.”

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/rebate-683759-water-program.html
Contact the writer: aorlowski@ocregister.com Twitter: @aaronorlowski