Was LA’s grass-to-gravel water-saving campaign a sham?

Ryan Nivakoff and drought-resistant shrubbery in L.A. (Credit: CBS2, Landscaping Network)
Ryan Nivakoff and drought-resistant shrubbery in L.A. (Credit: CBS2, Landscaping Network)

If the cost of saving water was sad-looking lawns, it might have been worth it.

But thanks in part to the startup Turf Terminators — a private drought-tolerant landscaping operation that collected $44 million in city rebates before dissolving after two years in business — L.A.’s campaign for water-saving landscaping may have been a giant bust, according to Bloomberg.

In 2014, the third year of California’s now-five-year-old drought, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), as well as the L.A. Department of Water and Power, began offering generous rebates to homeowners and businesses for removing grass on their properties.

Enter Turf Terminators, headed by then-20-something Ryan Nivakoff.

The firm offered L.A. homeowners turf removal and landscaping services free of charge in exchange for their rebates. The company said it would install mulch or gravel turf, with “Mediterranean” or “Southwestern” plants, even receiving public approval from Mayor Eric Garcetti at one point.

But the grass — or rather, mulch — wasn’t as green as it seemed.

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“My yard just looks worse than ever,” one resident told Bloomberg, 14 months after she hired Turf Terminators to strip her lawn and install low-water plants. “So sad, the plants may be drought tolerant, but certainly not heat tolerant. Soon I could end up with all rocks.”

In addition to unhappy customers with ugly lawns, there are allegations that Turf Terminators was shady in how they obtained the rebates. Emails obtained by Bloomberg indicate the company may have overstated the size of lawns, and used photographs that didn’t match addresses. In one case, Turf Terminators, while filing rebate paperwork, attached a photograph of a patch of green that, the MWD claim processor wrote, was actually a carpet.

Meanwhile, the city’s rebate programs burned through their fund. The MWD was getting $10 million worth of applications a week by spring 2015, and committed an additional $340 million to their initial $88 million that May. By July, all of it was gone.

The rebates, it turned out, were mostly used by private companies rather than individual homeowners. Turf Terminators alone received 12 percent of the total rebate money — the largest single contractor to take advantage of the fund. The company halted its grass-removal services a month after the MWD rebate money dried up, changing its name to Build Savings and shifting to contracting work.

As for water saved? Experts are unsure whether the new gravel lawns are actually saving water. Gravel can cause increased heat and evaporation, which lead to additional water usage in reviving the fried desert plants, specialists told Bloomberg.

City officials won’t know exactly how much water the rebate system saved until a few years from now, according to MWD manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. [Bloomberg] — Cathaleen Chen