Grass near a Downtown Fresno bank remains green this week. The city has sent out 9,000 letters informing business and properties owner that they can no longer irrigation non-functional turf. Photo by Frank Lopez.

published on September 8, 2022 - 2:26 PM
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You may notice more brown grass at Fresno businesses in the coming days due to new water restrictions imposed by the state.

On direction from Gov. Gavin Newsom, an emergency drought regulation went into effect June 10 instituting a ban on watering non-functional turf, among other measures. It would last one year — unless readopted by the State Water Resources Control Board.

In early August, businesses and apartment complexes served by Fresno’s water utility were informed they could no longer irrigate “non-functional turf” or “ornamental grass”— or grass that is mowed, according to city officials. Businesses will still be able to water ornamental plants and shrubbery to keep them alive.

All commercial properties across the state are subject to these restrictions.


Spread the word

The City of Fresno sent out more than 9,000 letters to business and property owners in the city informing them of the new regulations.

Wendy Cornelius, water conservation supervisor for the City of Fresno, said the first step is informing and educating businesses on the new regulations — and that the goal is not to fine business owners right away.

Apartment complexes, businesses and shopping centers that have non-functional turf with no established trees, tree canopies or ornamental shrubs in the zone will not be able to be watered if the grass is not used for sports or other events.

Since churches are classified as commercial, industrial and institutional (CCI) properties, these new rules will apply to churches that do not use their grass for sports or events daily.

Cornelius said that business owners are still allowed to make changes to their landscaping and add trees or shrubs to their grass zones to permit watering.


“We are giving a little bit of a lead time. If we are going around and seeing that people are still irrigating, we will advise and let them know. If we go back and see that they are still irrigating, fines could be applied. At this point in time, we are still advising,” Cornelius said.

Cornelius said the city has representatives out each day working with commercial property owners to ensure compliance. Residents will also call the city with complaints of excess watering of non-functional turf.

She said there has not been pushback from the local business community, but lots of calls for clarity and confirmation about the new regulations.


Trading it in

In July 2021, the City of Fresno revived its lawn to garden rebate program with some changes as an incentive for residents to replace their front lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping.

The rebate program is open to businesses as well.

Homeowners and business owners will receive $1 a square foot up to 1,500 square feet for removing their front lawns and replacing it with more drought tolerant landscaping that includes rocks, water-wise plants and mulch.

Synthetic turf will no longer be covered under the rebate program, which began in Fresno in 2015.

Cornelius said the city has received more than 500 applications for the rebate program since July 2021.

To allow moisture to get into the soil, no more than 35% of landscape can be composed of hard surface rock material.

Cornelius said that while residents are informed of the conditions for the program, some still choose to go with all rocks in the landscape and will not qualify for the rebate.


Growing interest

Antonio Armando Soto, owner of Specialty Landscape, a landscaping company in Fresno, said that in June he started getting calls from his clients about the lawn-to-garden rebate program, both for residential and commercial properties.

Soto said more clients are removing their grass and installing drought-tolerant plants and river rocks. They are also installing drip watering systems — another element in the rebate program.

Though prices vary depending on the size and terrain of a front lawn, converting a lawn to a dry river landscape scene comes with a price starting at $3,500 and up.

These landscapes require less maintenance from his company, Soto said.

“When they had grass, we’d go out there every week or every two weeks,” Soto said. “With these drought-tolerate landscapes, they ask us to go out there just once a month.”

Soto said they currently don’t provide a once-a-month service, but he is considering starting one since more customers are requesting it.

Soto is fearful these landscaping trends could mean less work for his maintenance crews. He added that apartment complexes are also installing more drought tolerant plants and drip systems.

Specialty Landscape also services office properties, daycare centers and smaller shopping centers, which Soto said are coming to him to discuss switching out their lawns for more drought-tolerant landscapes or artificial turf.

“We’ve been busy for the last month with calls for drought-tolerant landscapes, but more for synthetic turf and with the rebate program back, more people are trying to save money,” Soto said.


Taking it in stride

Fresno Chamber of Commerce CEO Scott Miller said he has heard the local business community talk about the new restrictions, but there is no dispute that California is in a drought. He has also not heard much pushback on the regulations.

“The restrictions are much less severe than they were a few years ago when we had a drought, so I think people are in line with what’s happening,” Miller said.

Since summer is almost over, Miller thinks the regulations didn’t have the same impact as if they had been implemented earlier in the year.

“We’ve made it through most of the summer. The days are getting shorter. In six to eight weeks, we may get some rain,” Miller said. “If it had happened earlier in the season, it would have been an issue for the landscapes.”

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