Larry Kramer, a San Juan Capistrano councilman, ditched his lawn to conserve. Photo by Brian Park
Larry Kramer, a San Juan Capistrano councilman, ditched his lawn to conserve water and save money. Photo by Brian Park

By Brian Park

Water conservation is on the minds of many Southern Californians who are feeling the effects of drought conditions and water shortages in their lawns and in their wallets.

The solution? Well, if you ask San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Larry Kramer, if you want to save water and your wallet, consider ditching your lawn.

That’s exactly what Kramer did in his own backyard, where he’s replaced about 700 square feet of grass with decomposed granite, outdoor seating, a fire pit and several varieties of native and drought tolerant plants.

“The grass was just soaking up a lot of water, and it was just sort of sitting there,” Kramer said. “Now I’ve got a nice outdoor area and it’s become very useful.”

Like other local municipalities, the city of San Juan Capistrano has had to tighten its purse strings while tackling the problem of water conservation. In 2008, the city took over the day-to-day operations of the Groundwater Recovery Plant, located adjacent to city hall.

Although the plant has come under fire from some residents who say it’s become too expensive to operate—some going so far as to file a lawsuit against the city—city leaders and water officials have maintained that the plant can supply half of the city’s water needs, minimize the city’s reliance on imported water and promote conservation through a tiered rate structure.

Kramer has been among the most vocal supporters of the plant, both on the council dais and in the local media. Although some residents say the plant and the city’s tiered rate structure unnecessarily increase water bills, Kramer believes more effort must be taken to conserve water.

“If you’re using the same amount of water as before, your bills will go up,” Kramer said. “My water bills have not gone up. My average for the year is probably less than $100 a month, and that’s because I’ve taken the steps at home to conserve water.”

In addition to removing his backyard lawn, Kramer participated in the city’s toilet replacement incentive program, which provides rebates for customers who replace their old toilets with new, low-flush models.

Kramer has also taken advantage of the Municipal Water District of Orange County’s SoCal Water$mart rebate program, through which he’s installed a “smart” controller and timer to his irrigation system.

“It adjusts the amount of water depending on the time of the year, the temperature, humidity and so forth,” Kramer said. “If my standard time is six minutes and it’s in the winter time, it’ll water for only three minutes. If it rains, it won’t water at all.”

In addition, Kramer and his wife, Chris, have also planted more than 50 species of native and drought tolerant plants, including dwarf coyote bush, California poppies, Baja bush snapdragon and showy milkweed, which attract monarch butterflies.

“It’s amazing the beauty we have out here with our native plants.”

Kramer also maintains his own compost piles, using dead foliage from his yard.

“When I trim bushes, I shred it all. I have an electric lawnmower, so I catch all the trimmings and it all goes into my compost pile,” Kramer said. “The compost holds water well so we don’t use much water.”

Kramer is currently working on replacing a small hillside in his backyard with native plants. Although he said his front yard is small, Kramer is considering resculpting his lawn to include a swale that can catch water runoff.

As for what his constituents and other south Orange County residents can do to save water and lower their bills, Kramer recommends contacting city offices and regional water agencies for information about conservation and incentive programs.

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