Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007 | On a lush, sapling-lined street in eastern Chula Vista, the mountains in the hazy distance more accurately reflect the natural landscape.

They’re brown.

Not here on Merced River Road, where red roses bounce in the evening breeze and green lawns glisten in the late-day light. Sprinklers are spraying, hoses are gurgling.

Nimal Diunugala gives his front yard a five-minute dose of water each night. Not to keep it green. To keep out of trouble. When he doesn’t water it and brown patches show up, his homeowners association sends a reminder letter. Its message, in effect: Your grass must be green.

But Diunugala, a 50-year-old environmental engineer who lives in Otay Ranch Three, wants to conserve water — and money.

He wants to kill his grass.

In its place, he wants to plant drought-resistant plants, which can include cacti, manzanita and sagebrush.

Doing so won’t earn him another letter, thanks to a state law that went into effect in January, which prohibits homeowners associations from requiring residents to have lawns.

If a homeowner has a lawn, the association can require that it be kept looking lush. But the law prohibits the association from requiring the lawn. Residents now have legal protection to rip out their lawns and plant native vegetation instead.

Melinda Young, a senior vice president at Walters Management, the agent for Otay Ranch’s homeowners association, said the association does not require lawns. But whatever landscaping is present must be maintained.

“It wouldn’t be any different if he had four-foot weeds in his front yard,” Young said. “They have an obligation to everybody to stay on top of the maintenance.”

Lawns are hardly a natural phenomenon in San Diego. Keeping a lawn green requires about 48 inches of water a year, said Don Schultz, horticulture manager at the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College.

Since last July, San Diego has received less than 4 inches of rain.

That means those verdant lawns across the region are fed by irrigation. The San Diego County Water Authority estimates that about 43 percent of all water consumed by homes and businesses throughout the region is used to water grass. (That estimate excludes water used by agriculture.) The authority lobbied in favor of the new law.

“The idea of an HOA demanding that a homeowner use a certain amount of water to keep their lawn looking nice, to our thinking, that’s a waste,” said John Liarakos, a water authority spokesman. “That’s the kind of use that’s going to bring us to mandatory restrictions.”

Diunugala has already experimented with killing off his backyard. The Navy reservist stopped watering it during a three-month deployment to Kuwait. His water bill dropped $30 a month, he said.

But while his hope of a drought-resistant front yard highlights the opportunities for outdoor water conservation, it also reveals the challenges that make outdoor savings harder to achieve than those indoors.

“When you think of water conservation in the house, you put a low-flow toilet in,” said Schultz of the Water Conservation Garden. “It’s very easy to have a grasp of the savings, every time you flush. But there’s no straightforward thing in landscaping. You have to know horticulture and how to irrigate. It’s why saving water in landscapes is the hardest thing.”

The water authority touts the success of its efforts to conserve water indoors, launched in the wake of the severe drought that struck Southern California from 1987 to 1992. But its efforts to find water savings outdoors have proven less fruitful.

“It’s not just, ‘Come get your toilet,’” Liarakos said. “It’s, ‘Change your whole behavior about how you manage the landscape.’”

Some say that the arid region should begin phasing out grassy lawns.

“It’s absurd in a desert that we would force people to use more water,” said Marco Gonzalez, an Encinitas-based environmental attorney. “That just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We should be more like Las Vegas and preclude people from putting in more grass.”

In Las Vegas, where synthetic lawns are growing in popularity, businesses advertise “Grass so close to real, it’s unreal.” The city has adopted what it calls “turf limitations.” Grass can cover just 50 percent of a single-family home’s front yard. During a drought, new turf isn’t allowed to be installed.

But lawns remain a fact of life in San Diego, despite their water consumption. Even Schultz, who works at a garden offering a class called “Bye Bye, Grass”, admits that lawns have a pastoral appearance, feel cool and smell great.

“Green is a great thing. It’s a good color,” Schultz said. “Let’s face it, what do our hills look like in August? They’re not that pretty.”

Schultz likens lawns to old jalopies. They need expensive repairs — those monthly water bills — but replacing them by replanting the landscape can cost more in the short-term. Recovering the cost of new plants can take a decade, he said.

Those water-conserving landscapes don’t need to be solely cactus and rock. Lawns can play a role in a low-water landscape, Schultz said. But have a reason for a lawn, he said. Balancing a smaller lawn with drought-resistant plants that need little irrigation can still conserve water.

“You can have beautiful landscapes that don’t need that much water,” Schultz said. “It does require maybe a bit of compromise on what you think is beautiful in a landscape. But mainly it’s going to require you to learn about it.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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