L.A. is wasting millions on a program to encourage residents to tear out their grass lawns and replace them with gravel, according to an audit released today.

The report, issued by L.A. Controller Ron Galperin, says the Department of Water and Power's turf rebate program is “largely a gimmick — a device intended to attract attention and publicity.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti has touted the program as a key element in the city's response to the state's historic drought. In April, Garcetti lauded Turf Terminators, a company that uses turf rebates to replace lawns, in his State of the City speech.

According to the DWP, Turf Terminators collected $8.6 million in turf rebates this year alone. The Metropolitan Water District, the regional water wholesaler, reported that the company had been paid another $15 million from its program through July 9, with another $22.7 million of pending claims.

KCBS recently drew attention to $25,650 in contributions made to Garcetti's campaign and his nonprofit fund, which reporter David Goldstein found had come from officers of Turf Terminators, their associates and even their relatives. The firm has stopped taking new customers.

Among all of the DWP's water-conservation programs, the audit found that the turf-rebate program is the least cost-effective by far. Galperin noted that some turf-rebate money had gone to golf courses, which he said was not the best use of ratepayer money.

“When they budget for how they spend their money, it should be based in terms of [return on investment] and what their specific goals for the program are,” Galperin said in an interview. “If you look at various other things we put our money into, they are achieving a higher rate of return.”

The audit found that the DWP does not prioritize its conservation efforts based on which programs are most cost-effective. In response, the DWP defended the turf-rebate program, saying it is important to offer customers a “menu of tools” to help conserve.

Mark Gold, the associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA, argued that it was premature to declare the program to be ineffective. It should be seen as an investment in changing public behavior, he argued.

“I think the investment is a smart investment,” he said. “We need to change our relationship with outdoor landscaping.”

For his part, Galperin suggested that the utility invest in “smart meters,” which would make it much easier for customers to track their own water use and to conserve.

LA Weekly