Mike McAbee received the full $2,000 rebate to redesign his front and side yards. Photo by John Chadwell.

Shawn Novack, water conservation program manager with Water Resources Association San Benito County, wants to give residents $150,000 in free money—$2 a square foot up to 1,000 square feet—to remove their lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping. 

The unexpected problem in trying to give away money is that either residents haven’t heard about the turf replacement rebate program, they haven’t suffered enough from paying their water bills, they really really love their lawns, or more remarkably, they don’t believe there is a drought, Novack said.

He said the program is an attempt to get people to remove grass or turf they’re not using. He understands that people may want to keep some turf for kids or pets, but the removal of ornamental turf that uses up 40 to 50 inches or 299 to 374.5 gallons of water annually might be worth considering.

Hollister, San Juan Bautista, Sunnyslope Water District, and the San Benito County Water District fund the program. Novack also applied for a state grant of $75,000 to be matched by $75,000 in local funding. If he is successful in acquiring the grant, he said he should have the money by March 2023 to add to the $150,000 he already has.

“I hope we can keep this turf removal program going for at least two years,” he said, adding that the grass or turf must be replaced with drought tolerant materials and plants or even artificial turf can be used.

He said he has been trying to inform the public about the program through BenitoLink, the Hollister Free Lance, Facebook, inserts in bills, and public presentations.

So far, he said, just 30 people have shown enough interest that he has gone to their homes to measure their lawns and take pictures. Only two have fully removed their lawns and replaced them. He said if all the money were used, 75,000 square feet of turf would be removed.

One person who took him up on the offer is Mike McAbee, who has lived on Prune Street in Hollister off and on since 1968. He was already thinking about redesigning his front and side yards to “extend the outdoor living space and conserve water.” He said the $2,000 rebate helped convince him to move forward.

McAbee removed about 1,800 square feet of lawn. Minus the $2,000 rebate, he spent $25,000 on the project and local landscaper Tim Dooling transformed the lawns into a water-tolerant setting that is highly functional yet low in maintenance, he said. McAbee said he worked with local designer Rosemary Bridwell on the project.

“We had a great time designing it with her and Tim said it was the easiest design he’s been able to work with,” he said. “We put in compressed granite, drip irrigation and lighting.”

McGee, who works at Hollister High School, said a student, Luke Perry, helped him come up with the materials and built a metal arbor in front of the house where wisteria vines will eventually cover it.

Novack said McGee and another person who used artificial turf are the only ones who have completed their lawn removal projects. He said to qualify for the program people need to be residents of the cities served by the water districts. Residents not served by the two water districts would not be eligible. He said the turf must be “identifiable as grass and we hope there is still some green in it.”

The normal process begins when he measures the lawn and takes photos. The customer then must supply him with a materials list to be used for the transition. Twenty-five percent of the converted space must be low-water-use plants (plants and water-wise landscape designs by Bridwell are listed on the water district’s website).

“We don’t want cement decks,” he said. “We want it to be permeable so the water will go into the ground. Once I review that I send out an authorization letter and that’s when the clock starts ticking. They have 120 days from the day of that letter to complete the project.”

Novack said funding is limited but if someone has received the authorization letter, he will try to hold that money for their project. He is, however, amazed at how few have taken advantage of the rebate program and said some have told him they don’t believe the drought crisis is real. To learn more about the program, go to the Water Resource Association of San Benito County website: WRASBC  


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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...