Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 | After 48 years in his Clairemont Mesa home, Paul Marsh decided last month to tear out his front lawn.

In place of his Bermuda grass, Marsh now has stone pavers and 289 square feet of artificial turf.

After spending $4,000 on the artificial turf, Marsh made a fortuitous discovery: He might be eligible for a rebate. He poked around, made some calls and found out he could potentially get back $80.

He wasn’t excited. But he tried applying anyway. “I’ll take any found money,” he said. Marsh ended up not qualifying.

Mike Staudinger did. After spending $11,000 on fake grass at his Rancho Peñasquitos home in 2008, he got a $600 rebate (his contractor kicked back another $500). But he said the rebate wasn’t a factor either.

“We would’ve done it anyway,” Staudinger said. “It was like, great — we’ll take the free money.”

More than $10 million in rebates are distributed in Southern California annually as incentives to buy everything from artificial turf to high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers. Give someone a financial incentive to tear their lawn out, the reasoning goes, and they’ll pick artificial turf and save water as a result.

During the last two decades, they’ve been used to catalyze demand for things like the low-water showerheads and toilets that are now common. Advocates say they’re still a vital tool to get people to buy more efficient devices.

But with mandatory water restrictions in effect throughout San Diego County, some water managers are questioning whether rebates are the best way to save water or simply handing out unexpected and unneeded rewards to people like Staudinger. They say the money could be better spent teaching people how to save water, not paying them for doing it.

“We believe the incentive programs have a limited shelf life,” said William Rose, water conservation program executive at the San Diego County Water Authority. “People take the money just because it’s available, not necessarily because it incentivizes them to buy the device.”

Rose described rebates for artificial turf as the “most outrageous.” The Metropolitan Water District, the Los Angeles-based water wholesaler that supplies most of San Diego County’s water, offers a 30-cents-per-square-foot rebate as long as a local agency matches it. Turf can cost more than $10 per square foot.

“We’ve heard of nobody that did it because there was a rebate,” Rose said of turf installation. “It begs the question: Why?”

The water authority has shifted $4 million in biennial funding it had budgeted for rebates toward other conservation efforts and wants to see Metropolitan, which budgets $10 million for rebates from its $19 million annual conservation budget, do the same.

Debra Man, Metropolitan’s chief operating officer, said the district is currently reviewing its rebate program to determine what devices to offer incentives for in the future. She suggested that a future will continue to exist for rebates but said the agency had heard the water authority’s concerns and would address them.

Rose said the water authority is shifting its attention to survey and audit programs that help teach people how to save water at home or at work. “Our emphasis is toward how I make changes,” he said, “not necessarily paying for those changes.”

Rebates may not help create an incentive for artificial turf, but they can provide a tipping point for less expensive items, said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a utility watchdog.

Shames said a miniscule rebate for artificial turf wasn’t likely to work. The market for fake grass could be driven instead by the price of water, he said. “When you have high out of pocket expenditures, the incentives need to be much greater,” Shames said.

Rebates often help create the market for more efficient technologies that eventually become the norm, said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District, which supplies La Mesa.

He pointed to the efficient toilets and showerheads that proliferated with the help of rebates during the drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But water districts must continually evaluate whether the rebates are working, he said.

“Once it’s the standard, why spend money on the programs when it’s all people are going to buy anyway?” Weston asked.

The current water restrictions have generated plenty of demand for rebates. Metropolitan spent $54 million on conservation last year — the open-ended rebates available to San Diegans ran out of money twice — and has budgeted $10 million (and closed its open-ended offer) this year.

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