One Way for Californians to Conserve Water: Paint Your Dead Lawns Green

As the Golden State's worst drought on record rages on, a niche industry emerges.

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For Jay Torres, the hardest part of California's devastating drought wasn't the shorter showers or the fact that he couldn't wash his car. It was looking at his lawn, which withered and died when he cut back on watering. So he got creative. The San Bernardino resident hired someone to paint his grass green.

"It became a real eyesore, and we live in an area where everyone keeps their yard really nice," Torres said. "I heard about a service where people paint your lawn so it looks like the real thing and thought, 'Why not?'"

A Long Beach landscaper armed with a canister of paint showed up at Torres's front door a few days later. Now the lawn sports a glittering shade of emerald green that should last anywhere from three to six months.

"We've had lots of people stop over and say it looks good," Torres said. "It's this really bright, popping green." Some of the neighbors have even said they're thinking of dyeing their dead grass green to match.

Companies that promise to paint lawns are cropping up all over California. The service lets homeowners cut back on water use without sacrificing curb appeal. But the cosmetic cover-up masks an ugly reality: The Golden State is three years into what has now become its worst drought on record. And it's only getting worse.

The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded the intensity last week with a warning that more than half the state is now experiencing "exceptional" drought—the most severe category, according to federal researchers.

Mandatory statewide water restrictions took effect at the start of the month, as state officials work to save what little water remains. Hosing down driveways is off-limits, and lawn-watering is severely restricted under the new rules. Anyone found in violation can be fined up to $500.

"We don't know how long it's going to last, so we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario," said Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the California State Water Resources Control Board. 

The Golden State has seen its fair share of drought. And, in the past, water shortages have lasted as long as six years. But scientists are starting to predict that this drought could last much longer. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California (Berkeley), says the state might be in the midst of a "megadrought" that could continue for more than a century.

The drought has not been kind to California. Massive wildfires have devastated state parks, forced people to leave their homes, and stretched the state's budget. Water shortages have created havoc for farmers and ranchers. And ski resorts have had to shut down due to lack of snow.

There's at least one economic bright spot: Lawn painters have been quick to capitalize on the state's extreme weather. Landscapers have been using specially formulated dye to green up golf courses and athletic fields for decades. And realtors have long deployed grass paint to spruce up neglected properties. But the drought has given the little-known product new life as most everything green dies off. Companies that sell the stuff say phones are ringing off the hook.

Landscapers are also advertising a few key advantages: Once the grass has been painted, it can make do with much less water, allowing homeowners to cut back on their water bill while complying with the newly minted state water rules. It's also cheaper than ripping out the lawn to replace it with gravel, stone, or concrete.

The dye is marketed as safe and nontoxic. Landscapers typically charge by the square foot to apply the paint, and once it dries, the color won't run. Prices vary but typically range from 25 cents to 35 cents per square foot of grass. On average, a 500-square-foot lawn is likely to cost $175 for a fresh coat of green paint.

"People think it sounds ridiculous when they first hear about it," said Jim Power, the operations manager for LawnLift, a grass-paint manufacturer based in San Diego. "But they try it, and instantly they're hooked."

Last month, Power crunched the numbers and discovered that sales have more than doubled this year compared with last. The latest post on the company's Facebook page reads: "State-mandated water rationing in full effect starting tomorrow August 1st! Get your green on before the water authority gets your green with mandated $500 a day fines!"

Drew McClellan, the owner of Long Beach landscaper A Lucky Lawn, reports that business has picked up with each passing day. He recently met with representatives from Santa Fe Springs, where city officials are seriously considering painting the grass in all of the public parks green.

Business is booming for lawn painters at both ends of the state. Xtreme Green Grass, a company that bills itself as "the number one lawn painting company in Northern California," says sales are up 60 percent. Meanwhile, Shawn Sahbari, the founder of the Los Gatos lawn-painting company Green Canary, has seen an increase in customers of about 75 to 100 percent since the water shortage began.

That's great for the bottom line. But for Sahbari, an entrepreneur who also considers himself an environmentalist, an ever-expanding customer list is bittersweet.

"When you notice that so many people want to have this done, you start to ask, 'What's going on here?'" he said. "I think people are realizing this is a very real problem. We can't just keep doing what we've been doing."

This post originally appeared on National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.

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