The end of the LA lawn

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When the news popped up on Carmen Uribe's smartphone on Wednesday, she went into a near-panic: California, for the first time, would be instituting mandatory, statewide restrictions on water use. Which, to her mind, means one thing: dead lawns.

"We're so used to Southern California having these beautiful, lush lawns and palm trees and seasonal flowers," she told me by phone from Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles, where she is general manager at a landscaping business called A Greener Tomorrow. But now, because of the drought and new water regulations, "I'm telling you, all I see is Arizona and Las Vegas."
"Who's going to be willing to pay?" she said. "You can't maintain a lawn!"
The idea of Los Angeles -- much less Bel Air and Beverly Hills -- ripping out its water-sucking lawns and oh-so-thirsty flowers is indeed a shock, especially if installing and maintaining those lawns is your livelihood. But consider the context: California is in an extreme drought. Snowpack in the state, one measure of how much water will be available this summer, is at an all-time low, at just 5% of normal. Rivers are running dry, as I found last summer on a three-week trip down the San Joaquin. With no water at the surface, farmers are turning below the ground, pumping out groundwater at such an alarming rate that the land actually is sinking. In some places, that's happening at the truly astounding rate of almost 1 foot per year.
Elsewhere, wells are dry. Last summer, several municipalities nearly ran out of water. And in 500 households in Tulare County, according to an October report in The New York Times, residents could not "flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket."
I see where Uribe's coming from. The 35-year-old loves the colorful, landscaped version of Los Angeles. And she fears a drab, monochromatic future -- a blah city, all dirt and rocks.
But this is a crisis. And the California lawn is a reasonable casualty.
I applaud Gov. Jerry Brown's recent push to require all cities and towns to cut their water use by 25%. To help local entities with the new mandate, the state plans to support the replacement of 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant plants (otherwise known as "cash for grass"), create a rebate system so residents will get help replacing water-hogging appliances with more efficient models, require golf courses to cut water use, and ban watering the grass found on public street medians, among other provisions.
The total savings, according to the governor's office, will be 1.5 million acre feet of water over nine months. For context, 1 million acre feet is said by environmental groups to be as much water as 2 million families would need in a year.
The state's focus on lawns makes sense given that grass and other landscaping account for up to 50% of all urban water use, said Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "It's nice for us to have trees and landscapes, but we could do that with half of the water," she said. "It's not like it's going to mean the end of our economy or the end of our way of life."
If anything, the requirements don't go far enough.
Each year, California uses 6 million more acre feet of water "than our rivers and aquifers can sustainably provide," according to a 2014 report from the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those groups found 14 million acre feet of water per year could be saved if a number of changes were made to the way cities and farms operate. Among the recommendations: More-efficient farming techniques, including drip irrigation and "smart irrigation scheduling," which waters crops exactly when and where they need it.
So Brown's plan won't fix California's water woes.
But it's an important start.
Next, the state should direct its focus to farms, which consume 80% of all human-used water in California and generate only 2% of the state's gross domestic product. It's reasonable, if politically tricky, for the state to focus more attention on the industry that consumes more water than any other. California can create a water budget that allows farms, people and fish to thrive.
Much water can be saved with newer technologies, without forcing farmers to give up the land they use to grow crops, said Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute.
She praised Brown's order as "a very positive step forward."
"California is facing a drought of epic proportions, and we need to work together to reduce the use of water so there's sufficient water for cities, for farms and for ecosystems," she told me. "We need to be preparing not only for this drought but for the next one."
And that's the crux of it.
This California drought has been extreme. But in the future, as the climate continues to warm, Cooley and others say the state likely will see more hot, dry years like this.
They won't seem so abnormal, sadly.
All the more reason it's good for California to deal with its grass problem pronto.
If it's smart, it can do so without looking like the Arizona desert.