2023 cohort
Water and drought

Once a status symbol in Orange County, green lawns are slowly becoming passe

Nearly 17 percent of Irvine area water users are considered “inefficient” or “wasteful.”

Phoebe Pan

July 27, 2023

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Walking through Irvine, lush, green lawns line every house as well-groomed planters hem the streets. In a city known for its family-friendly parks and nature trails, the threat of drought can feel distant. But the recent rainfall and scenic landscaping mask environmental problems in dry Orange County. 

The Irvine Ranch Water District—or IRWD—serves Irvine and surrounding Orange County cities. John Fabris, the Communications Manager of the IRWD, mentioned how the recreational areas and natural environment play a central role in the identities of these areas.

“You have cities like Irvine, Tustin, Lake Forest that are very residential,” Fabris explained. “These communities pride themselves, among other things, in their green space, their livability… beautiful parks.”

Fabris said local residents have a responsibility to make sustainable choices in the midst of this hidden drought. However, many Orange County residents aren’t—this year, nearly 17 percent of IRWD customers are considered “inefficient” or “wasteful.”

According to the IRWD water budget, “inefficient” residents use more than 50 gallons of water per day; for a family of four, that’s 6,000 gallons of water each month.

Some of the resistance to change habits is generational. Fabris mentioned how many residents are reluctant to let go of their traditional landscaping, despite environmental concerns. 

“A lot of people from the older generation grew up in a world where having a green lawn, like ‘Leave It to Beaver’ with the white picket fence, was sort of the American dream,” he said. 

But the county has made progress. Fabris mentioned that many younger residents are making landscaping decisions with water efficiency in mind. For example, they’re replacing their resource-intensive lawns with turf.

“I think the younger people are very concerned about sustainability and, you know, living in a place where we’re not draining the rivers dry,” Fabris said.

For residents who want to make water-friendly landscaping choices, the IRWD can help. It offers lawn removal rebates and educational resources online. Their “Shed Show” series introduces homeowners to drought-conscious landscaping alternatives and sustainable garden tips. 

Some residents fight for local sustainability in other ways. Kathleen Treseder is a UC Irvine professor who joined the Irvine City Council to, she said, create policies that address climate change and energy use. After she was sworn into office, she helped co-author a resolution that aims to establish net carbon neutrality in Irvine by 2030. 

“If you change policy, then that can have a big impact relatively quickly,” she said. “I just ran because I thought, I’m really concerned about the environment. And this is the most concrete way that I can help.”

While some local residents have changed their view of water use and conservation, water habits need to shift at the state level, as well. State Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) chairs the Senate Water and Natural Resources Committee, and he expressed his concerns about statewide agricultural water use. 

“We need to start thinking about how we can change the behavior of ag[riculture], big ag and small ag and dairy…as well,” Min said.

A majority of the state’s water usage goes to agriculture.

Going forward, both private and personal water use habits must change to address the state’s environmental needs. It’s an issue that will require even more attention as water becomes more and more scarce in the near future. 

About the author

Phoebe Pan is a 2023 JCal reporter from Orange County.

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JCal is a free program that immerses California high school students into the state’s news ecosystem. It is a collaboration between the Asian American Journalists Association and CalMatters.