New Bill Marks Climate Transition for California Landscapes

Irrigating ornamental turf grass at non-residential locations will be phased out, beginning in 2027.

A sprinkler watering grass in Bakersfield, California

A sprinkler watering grass in Bakersfield, California


John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources

There are big changes coming to the look of public spaces in California – less lawn.  After three severe statewide droughts in just 15 years, state leaders are realizing that resuming irrigation of purely ornamental turf grass in public spaces is unwise.  That’s why in June the State Water Board extended its emergency ban on irrigation of ornamental turf with potable water for another year, even after last winter’s heavy snows brought initial relief from drought conditions. Now, a bill almost ready for the Governor’s signature would make the Water Board’s temporary ban permanent, effective in stages between 2027 and 2031. 

AB 1572, authored by Assembly Member Laura Friedman (D-Burbank), is sponsored by NRDC, our non-profit partner Heal the Bay, and the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). These backers of the bill recognize, as Governor Newsom said in August a year ago, that “Climate change means drought won’t just stick around for two years at a time like it historically has – extreme weather is the new normal here in the American West, and California will adapt to this new reality.” Hotter and drier weather conditions are likely to significantly reduce California’s water supply, and sprinkling drinking water onto decorative grass leaves less water for essential purposes like cooking, bathing, and sanitation.

For more than 30 years, new urban landscapes in California have been required to be designed and installed to promote water efficiency. Nevertheless, large amounts of irrigated grass remain at commercial and institutional properties, much of it purely ornamental. And ornamental turf – sometimes called nonfunctional turf -- consumes an enormous amount of drinking water. 

With clear definitions, AB 1572 accommodates the continued irrigation of functional turf – grassy areas used for public gatherings, social events, ceremonies, sports fields, and informal recreation – while its limitations on irrigation apply to nonfunctional turf – areas where turf grass is primarily ornamental. Irrigation of turf with recycled water or harvested rainwater is not limited by the bill, nor is irrigation limited on any type of turf at single-family residences.  But even with these exemptions, the bill is expected to save as much as 300,000 acre-feet of water per year in MWD’s 6-county service area, an amount comparable to the annual water use of about 900,000 households.

The impact of the bill will be felt gradually.  The first properties covered by the bill will be any nonfunctional turf remaining at state and local governmental buildings, effective January 2027.  Other institutional properties, as well as all commercial and industrial sites will follow in 2028.  Properties administered by homeowners’ associations and similar organizations managing common interest developments will be covered in 2029. Lastly, ornamental turf at local government buildings in disadvantaged communities will be covered in 2031, to the extent that state funding is available to fund the cost of converting turf to climate-appropriate landscapes.

Irrigation of roadside turf like this in the Las Vegas area, will be curtailed under AB 1572 beginning in 2028.


Southern Nevada Water Authority

Should enforcement of the irrigation ban become necessary, the bill can be enforced directly by the state or by any local public agency.  Water suppliers are required to incorporate the irrigation limitations into their own local regulations, and can enforce the turf irrigation ban the same way they enforce other water use limitations or water service requirements. Owners of large irrigated parcels will be required to self-certify their compliance to the State Water Board beginning in 2030.

For people in the lawn care business, this means that over the next eight years, there will be less grass to mow on commercial properties, and more opportunities for higher-value services, like removing turf and replanting ground covers and shrubs that look good while requiring less water.  The demand for rainwater harvesting systems may also expand, since the new law only bans the use of potable water to irrigate nonfunctional turf, not irrigation with non-potable water like captured rainwater.  AB 1572 directs the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic development to support small and minority-owned businesses to grow their businesses as the landscape transition takes place.

Drought tolerant planting outside San Diego County Water Authority’s Headquarters

Drought tolerant planting outside San Diego County Water Authority’s Headquarters



San Diego County Water Authority

And the landscape transition must take place.  The sweeping turf grass aesthetic was never native to California, but an import from the Eastern Seaboard having its origins in notable plantations such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  Under AB 1572, turf will continue to support the purposeful activities that people enjoy, where they come together for casual or active play or for outdoor ceremonies and assemblies.  But it was always a stretch to install turf extensively in California’s arid and semi-arid climates, and landscape professionals now recognize that beautiful spaces don’t require mowed uniformity and extravagant amounts of water.  

Monticello - July 24, 2015

Turf grass lawns gained early popularity across the United States through the influence of notable plantations like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.


Edward Osann/NRDC

Critical Water Decisions Ahead

The Lower Colorado River, which supports urban Southern California, remains in Tier 1 shortage condition even after the region’s heavy snows and more recent torrential rains.  The basin states are now negotiating with the federal Bureau of Reclamation over new river operations to go into effect in 2027, and all expect that significant reductions in water use will be necessary.  In anticipation of these cuts, major urban water suppliers in Arizona, Nevada, and California have agreed among themselves to shed unnecessary water demands such as irrigation of nonfunctional turf.  In fact, AB 1572 is patterned after a state law already enacted in Nevada in 2021 (AB 356) that will bar irrigation of nonfunctional turf with Colorado River water there in all but single-family homes by 2027.

Low water levels on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam


Jakob Owens

MWD’s general Manager, Adel Hagekhalil, recently made this point: “We are looking to the future, working with all Colorado River users to create workable, post-2026 operational guidelines that permanently reduce our dependence on the Colorado River. This effort requires that we build on our success in conservation, build more local supply projects and safeguard the well-being and economies of the many communities that depend on the Colorado River for their livelihoods.” MWD will continue to offer rebates for the replacement of turf with climate-appropriate alternatives, and is applying for federal funding to expand and extend the turf rebate program.

With the pace of climate change quickening, California’s landscape transition must pick up the pace as well.  AB 1572 will set the stage for the exciting changes to come. 

AB 1572: the Details

  • Defines functional turf as a ground cover surface of turf located in a recreational use area or community space not enclosed by fencing or other barriers to preclude human access for recreation or assembly.
  • defines community space as area designated by a property owner or a governmental agency to accommodate human foot traffic for civic, ceremonial, or other community events or social gatherings.
  • defines recreational use area as an area designated by a property owner or a governmental agency to accommodate human foot traffic for recreation, such as sports fields, golf courses, playgrounds, picnic grounds, or pet exercise areas. This recreation may be either formal or informal.
  • defines nonfunctional turf as any turf that is not functional turf, and specifically includes turf in street rights-of-ways and parking lots. 
  • prohibits the use of drinking water for the irrigation of nonfunctional turf by the following dates: 
    • state buildings owned by the Department of General Services and local government agency properties 1-1-27; 
    • commercial, industrial, and institutional properties 1-1-28; 
    • common areas of homeowners’ associations, common interest developments, and community service organizations or similar entities 1-1-29; and, 
    • subject to the availability of state financial assistance, municipal facilities in Disadvantaged Communities 1-1-31.
  • specifies that the use of potable water to irrigate nonfunctional turf is not prohibited where necessary to maintain the health of trees.
  • allows the State Water Resources Control Board to extend the compliance date by up to three years for economic hardship, critical business need, or any other categories the board determines are essential to public health and safety.
  • authorizes public water systems, cities, and counties to enforce the bill’s limitations on irrigation of nonfunctional turf, with a requirement that local agencies notify the public water system serving a property 30 days in advance of taking enforcement action.
  • directs water suppliers to incorporate the irrigation prohibitions into local regulations by January 1, 2027.
  • requires owners of large irrigated landscapes (over 5,000 square feet of irrigated area) to certify their compliance with these provisions to the State Water Board every three years, beginning in 2030.
  • directs the Department of Water Resources to prioritize water conservation funding for nonfunctional turf replacement to public water systems serving disadvantaged communities and to owners of affordable housing.
  • directs future Integrated Regional Water Management plans developed by local agencies to specifically consider the water-related needs of the owners and occupants of affordable housing in the area of the plan, including the removal and replacement of nonfunctional turf.
  • directs the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to support small and minority-owned businesses that provide services that advance compliance with the bill.
Related Issues
Sustainable Cities

Related Blogs