Oct122016

Los Angeles’s turf removal program succeeded brilliantly

Despite criticisms of the methods, L.A.s turf removal program eliminated millions of square feet of water-hungry grass.

deforestationThe recent drought in California prompted many stories of drought shaming that amounted to peer pressure to reduce water usage. People wore their brown yards as badges of courage and openly criticized their neighbors who spent water on green grass.

Many nimbys used the water shortage as another reason to oppose new home development, but these nimbys failed to look in the mirror — or perhaps out their front window because the biggest wasters of water were homeowners watering their lush green grass. Modern houses with water-saving toilets and showers and drought-resistant plants use a tiny fraction of the water used by older homes.

Politicians were wise enough to recognize this fact, and in order to facilitate the removal of thirsty turf, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) doubled its rebate to homeowners to remove turf, from $1 to $2 per square foot. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power also raised its rebate from $1 to $1.75 per square foot. Combining the two, landowners could claim to $3.75 per square foot within city limits.

The program was wildly successful. Over 100,000,000 square feet of turf was removed in only two years, reducing water consumption by over 80%. Homeowners responded to the incentives exactly as politicians wanted. The success of the program is difficult to deny. Or is it?

When a newspaper wants to write sensationalist garbage, the facts rarely deter them. An editor from Bloomberg decided that giving voice to critics of Los Angeles’s turf removal program would generate more reader interest than a piece touting its success. As you will see, the facts are what they are, but the spin makes all the difference.

Grass Warfare in L.A.

Some well-intentioned Angelenos traded grass for gravel on their front lawns. It got ugly.

[Says who?]Cow surfing for some turf.

By Anna Scott | October 10, 2016

“We thought we were doing the right thing to save water,” Staci Terrace Goldfarb, a Southern California homeowner, said late last winter. “I hate looking at it.” … Goldfarb hired the company in December 2014 to install stone ground cover and low-water plants, but in the months that followed, the plants failed to thrive. Turf Terminators came back three times to replace dying yarrow, rosemary, and day lilies before Goldfarb gave up. …

The hit piece predictably starts with a disgruntled homeowner. The contractor came back three times attempting to satisfy this customer. What more was he supposed to do?

It had been a little more than a year since Goldfarb had the small, semicircular lawn in front of her 1960 Cape Cod in the San Fernando Valley replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping. Yet her front yard was a flat patch of gravel, the kind you can buy in bulk at Home Depot. It was the work, she said, of a company called Turf Terminators. …

Is there higher quality gravel available as some high-end landscape garden that would have been superior? Subtle innuendos are also typical in a hit piece.

Turf Terminators, started by twentysomething entrepreneurs, pitched itself to people like Goldfarb who wanted to conserve but couldn’t afford to pay a landscape architect four or five figures. In less than two years, the company removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. During that time, Turf Terminators was the veritable face of water-saving landscaping in and around Los Angeles, praised by government officials and some customers for providing a fast, affordable way to get rid of grass.

Sounds like a success story to me. An entrepreneur sees an opportunity and figures out how to create a win-win. Good for him.

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But it also left behind a trail of complaints like Goldfarb’s. Meanwhile, environmental activists accuse its owners of unwinding their efforts to help Southern California’s ecosystem in the longer term. The company’s short but profitable life span serves as an instructional fable for other cities that will inevitably face climate change-related infrastructure problems. The takeaway: Solutions are rarely simple or easy, so do a lot of research before throwing public money at the issues.

A few complaints and some spurious accusations hardly support the conclusion they want to believe. And the best solutions are often simple and easy, it’s usually political resistance that gets in the way.

Ryan Nivakoff, the now 30-year-old chief executive officer who created Turf Terminators with a group of college friends from Columbia, collected $44 million in rebate dollars for his company before closing shop.

I want to offer my congratulations on a successful venture.

In January, after refusing an on-the-record interview, Nivakoff hired Seth Lubove, a public-relations executive at Sitrick & Co. They’d had a slew of bad press, and had hired the same professionals called on in the wake of scandal by clients such as the Church of Scientology, Paris Hilton, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Notice he is guilty of something nefarious by innuendo. That’s really shoddy reporting.

The venture quickly hit an impasse. The agency had put a requirement in place to prevent newly created outfits from cashing in on rebates; landscape contractors had to have been in business for at least three years to collect subsidies. So Nivakoff bought out an older operation, Pan American Landscaping. Adequately licensed, Turf Terminators promoted itself through television and radio advertisements. It spent a week on what its statement called “neighborhood outreach,” but found it wasn’t necessary, as demand surged. Camouflage-clad work crews and trucks that doubled as billboards on lawn job sites began to pepper the city.

This guy is a brilliant entrepreneur. When confronted with barriers or problems, he found good solutions. He should be put in charge of importing water from Alaska. He might succeed.

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Reginald Fagan, a community garden activist, … stopped to watch about a half-dozen workers plow up the grass with a small tractor.

“I was concerned,” Fagan told me in February on a tour of his neighborhood. … Several other homes in the area have traded grass for Turf Terminators stone. “The way they were doing the yards, it was a quick … half-assed way of doing stuff,” he said. …

Fagan returned to the pink house three times that day to watch Turf Terminators’ crew scrape up the grass, lay a weed barrier over the soil, and install a drip line. By about 3 p.m., he recalled, they were spreading gravel.

In other words, he witnessed a very efficient operation and offers a testament to their good work.

“If I took on a job like this,” he said, “I couldn’t imagine this being a one-day-type situation.” He would have taken the time to dig out the roots of the grass thoroughly, he said, and test the soil’s permeability and mineral content, which he would then augment so plants could thrive.

Well, now we know why this man is not a successful entrepreneur. His fully-assed way to doing things would take far too long and cost far too much. People like him support wasteful programs under the guise of “doing things the right way.” For example:

“It’s the cheapest in-and-out thing that they can possibly do,” said Melanie Winter, director of the River Project. … A couple of years ago, Winter got a $700,000 grant through another water nonprofit to transform two dozen grass lawns in Panorama City, a sun-baked, middle-class suburb in the Valley—at a cost of almost $5,200 per property (the remaining money went to educational workshops, two-year follow-up support, and geotechnical analysis).

This sounds like a grossly inefficient boondoggle to me.

Adan Ortega, the only company associate willing to speak on record, whom I contacted before it hired Sitrick, said the jabs are competition-driven. “The California landscape arena is full of, like anything else, jealousies,” he said. “A lot of the criticism is from people that would’ve wanted to do something themselves and had a more nuanced but inaccessible approach. … It’s … a lot of snobbery in the native plant business.”

That’s exactly what it sounds like to me.

Which do you find more attractive? The gravel on the left, or the grass on the right?

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