California Residents Are Painting Their Lawns Green

Business has never been better for lawn painters amid the worst drought on record in the Golden State.

Green Canary worker Samuel Bucio sprays green water-based paint on a partially dead lawn at the Almaden Valley Athletic Club on July 21, 2014 in San Jose, California. As the severe California drought continues to worsen, home owners and businesses looking to conserve water are letting lawns die off and are having them painted to look green. The paint lasts up to 90 days on dormant lawns and will not wash off.
National Journal
Clare Foran
Aug. 5, 2014, 7:50 a.m.

For Jay Torres, the hard­est part of Cali­for­nia’s dev­ast­at­ing drought wasn’t the short­er showers or the fact that he couldn’t wash his car. It was look­ing at his lawn, which withered and died when he cut back on wa­ter­ing. So he got cre­at­ive. The San Bern­ardino res­id­ent hired someone to paint his grass green.

“It be­came a real eye­sore, and we live in an area where every­one keeps their yard really nice,” Torres said. “I heard about a ser­vice where people paint your lawn so it looks like the real thing and thought, why not? “

A Long Beach land­scaper armed with a can­is­ter of paint showed up at Torres’s front door a few days later. Now the lawn sports a glit­ter­ing shade of em­er­ald green that should last any­where from three to six months.

“We’ve had lots of people stop over and say it looks good,” Torres said. “It’s this really bright, pop­ping green.” Some of the neigh­bors have even said they’re think­ing of dye­ing their grass green to match.

The story is far from unique. Com­pan­ies that prom­ise to paint lawns are crop­ping up all over Cali­for­nia. The ser­vice lets homeown­ers cut back on wa­ter use without sac­ri­fi­cing curb ap­peal.

But the cos­met­ic cov­er-up masks an ugly real­ity: The Golden State is three years in­to what has now be­come its worst drought on re­cord. And it’s only get­ting worse.

The U.S. Drought Mon­it­or up­graded the in­tens­ity last week with a warn­ing that more than half the state is now ex­per­i­en­cing “ex­cep­tion­al” drought — the most severe cat­egory, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al re­search­ers.

Man­dat­ory statewide wa­ter re­stric­tions took ef­fect at the start of the month, as state of­fi­cials work to save what little wa­ter re­mains. Hos­ing down drive­ways is off-lim­its, and lawn wa­ter run­off is strictly for­bid­den un­der the new rules. Any­one found in vi­ol­a­tion can be fined up to $500.

“We don’t know how long it’s go­ing to last, so we need to pre­pare for the worst-case scen­ario,” said Fe­li­cia Mar­cus, the chair­wo­man of the Cali­for­nia State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board. 

The Golden State has seen its fair share of drought. And, in the past, wa­ter short­ages have las­ted as long as six years. But sci­ent­ists are start­ing to pre­dict that this drought could last much longer. Lynn In­gram, a pa­leo­cli­mato­lo­gist at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley), says the state might be in the midst of a “mega­d­rought,” that could con­tin­ue for more than a cen­tury.

The drought has not been kind to Cali­for­nia. Massive wild­fires have dev­ast­ated state parks, forced people to leave their homes, and stretched the state’s budget. Wa­ter short­ages have cre­ated hav­oc for farm­ers and ranch­ers. And ski re­sorts have had to shut down due to lack of snow.

But there’s at least one eco­nom­ic bright spot: Lawn paint­ers have been quick to cap­it­al­ize on the state’s ex­treme weath­er — and they’re mak­ing a killing.

Land­scapers have used spe­cially for­mu­lated dye to green-up golf courses and ath­let­ic fields for dec­ades. And Re­altors have long de­ployed grass paint to spruce up neg­lected prop­er­ties.

But the drought has giv­en the little-known product new life as most everything else in nature dies. Com­pan­ies that sell the stuff say phones are ringing off the hook.

Land­scapers are also ad­vert­ising a few key ad­vant­ages: Once the grass has been painted, it can make do with much less wa­ter, al­low­ing homeown­ers to cut back on their wa­ter bill while com­ply­ing with the newly min­ted state wa­ter rules. It’s also cheap­er than rip­ping out the lawn to re­place it with gravel, stone, or con­crete.

The dye is mar­keted as safe and non­tox­ic. Land­scapers typ­ic­ally charge by the square foot to ap­ply the paint, and once it dries, the col­or won’t run. Prices vary but typ­ic­ally range from 25 cents to 35 cents per square foot of grass. On av­er­age, a 500-square-foot lawn is likely to cost $175 for a fresh coat of green paint.

“People think it sounds ri­dicu­lous when they first hear about it,” said Jim Power, the op­er­a­tions man­ager for Lawn­Lift, a grass-paint man­u­fac­turer based in San Diego. “But they try it, and in­stantly they’re hooked.”

Last month, Power crunched the num­bers and dis­covered that sales have more than doubled this year com­pared with last.

The latest post on the com­pany’s Face­book page reads: “State-man­dated wa­ter ra­tion­ing in full ef­fect start­ing to­mor­row Au­gust 1st! Get your green on be­fore the wa­ter au­thor­ity gets your green with man­dated $500 a day fines!”

Drew Mc­Cle­l­lan, the own­er of Long Beach land­scaper A Lucky Lawn, re­ports that busi­ness has picked up with each passing day. He re­cently met with rep­res­ent­at­ives from Santa Fe Springs, where city of­fi­cials are ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing paint­ing the grass in all of the pub­lic parks green.

Busi­ness is boom­ing for lawn paint­ers at both ends of the state. Xtreme Green Grass, a com­pany that bills it­self as “the num­ber one lawn paint­ing com­pany in North­ern Cali­for­nia,” says sales are up 60 per­cent.

Mean­while, Shawn Sah­bari, the founder of the Los Ga­tos lawn-paint­ing com­pany Green Ca­nary, has seen an in­crease in cus­tom­ers of about 75 to 100 per­cent since the wa­ter short­age began.

That’s great for the bot­tom line. But for Sah­bari, an en­tre­pren­eur who also con­siders him­self an en­vir­on­ment­al­ist, an ever-ex­pand­ing cus­tom­er list is bit­ter­sweet.

“When you no­tice that so many people want to have this done, you start to ask, What’s go­ing on here?” he said. “I think people are real­iz­ing this is a very real prob­lem. We can’t just keep do­ing what we’ve been do­ing.”

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