Good-bye grass, hello gravel

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

turf Remember when I wrote about a neighbor who was “unclear on the concept” of transitioning from a water-hog front yard of grass to one with low water-using plantings? (No? You can read about it here.)

My complaint was that the spread of gravel substituted for grass might have met the letter of the California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program, but not its spirit. Granted, the new yard had a few drought-tolerant plants scattered about. They were hardly enough, however, to create the “friendly landscape” promoted by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Metropolitan Water District. Those rocks would not convert CO2, a greenhouse gas, to user-friendly oxygen or be good at capturing rainwater. In fact, they would absorb heat and increase temperatures.

Turns out, I was on to something.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured an investigation into what the two water agencies got in return for their $428 million incentive program. The story focused on the work of a company called Turf Terminators that banked 12 percent, $44 million, of that pot o’ gold, the largest single share.

california-friendly-landscaping-image-englishTurf Terminators was created by a couple of 20-something entrepreneurs who jumped into the program just as the MWD raised its rebate from $1 to $2 a square foot in 2014. City residents can get an additional $1.75 from the LADWP for a juicy total of $3.75 for every square foot of lawn removed. The company’s pitch to homeowners was that in return for rights to whatever rebate was owed them, Turf Terminators would replace their lawns for free. And Turf Terminators would even handle the paperwork.

Technically, the company should not have been in the rebate game: Landscapers were required to be in business three years in order to participate. Turf Terminators solved this problem by buying out a contractor who’d been around for a while and, presto change-o, the subsidies began to flow.

Turf Terminators claimed that in less than two years, it removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. Not everyone was happy with the results, however, and they vented on Yelp. This lament from a Porter Ranch homeowner was typical.

So here’s the deal: before you hire anyone to rip up your yard consider the implications of what that means. Your front yard will look like a crappy gravel parking lot or an abandoned drive-in theater. If your grass already looked bad then this just might be an improvement.

Not the case for me. My, once, lush beautiful green yard now looks like it’s only missing an abandoned car on blocks then the image would be complete.

Having a gravel yard hasn’t saved me any money. My LADWP bill is pretty much the same.

I can’t say for sure if my neighbor’s yard is a Turf Terminator creation, but it fits the profile: a few plants, a lot of gravel, and, over time, weeds poking up through a supposedly impermeable barrier. Customers also reported broken drip irrigator controls and plantings that failed to thrive, even after multiple replacements.

The MWD was well aware of these problems. Emails obtained by Businessweek through FOIA requests show that MWD staffers “griped about the slapdash nature of the of the [rebate] applications.” Lawn sizes looked inflated and photographs didn’t match what was at the listed address.

Staff also knew about the quality control issues. When a city councilman invited media outlets to observe Turf Terminators replacing his lawn, an MWD resource specialist took a look at photos of the new yard and compared the dense plantings there with a redone yard in her own neighborhood. “They obviously knew the job was at a council person’s, because it doesn’t look like any other project out there,” Businessweek quotes from her email to the program director.

ttIn May 2015, the MWD board met to consider whether to extend the program beyond its initial $88 million funding, which had been gobbled up in less than a year. During public comment period, community and environmental activists communicated their concerns about inappropriate landscaping. Their critique would be echoed a month later in an L.A. Times Op-Ed by noted landscape architect Mia Leher and colleagues. They said in part:

Gardens and lawns act as air conditioning for L.A., which is only getting hotter with climate change. Plants and trees provide shade and transpire moisture to cool the air; gravel and artificial turf don’t. In fact, they create the opposite of a virtuous cycle: Fewer plants means more heat, and more heat means faster evaporation from watering, swimming pools and vegetation. More heat also means more water to support the same landscape.

Yet the MWD board went ahead and committed an additional $340 million without any requirements on how lawns should be replaced or with what.

Just a few months later, in July 2015, all of the new money had been promised to applicants and MWD called a halt to the program. (The LADWP continues their incentive rebate of $1.75/square foot.)

The water district professes to be pleased with the outcome of their incentive program. They reckon a potential savings of 7.5 billion gallons of water per year. Yet as Leher and her colleagues  tried to tell the agency, calculating water savings is a complex business. They advocated instead “rainwater harvesting, gray water reuse and recycling water from sewage treatment plants” to reduce the use of potable water for watering. “Incentivizing turf removal and not reuse is shortsighted.”

A week after the MWD turned off the rebate spigot, Turf Terminators announced it would accept no new customers. The company completed jobs already “incentivized,” then laid off most of its 450 workers.

As criticisms of their work grew, the company subsequently hired a public relations firm that calls itself “a leader in crisis management of all types.” Businessweek’s request for an on-record interview with Turf Terminators principals was refused.

The men behind Turf Terminators have not exactly folded their tents and slipped away into the night. Rather they’ve formed a new company from the ashes of the old: a contractor services firm called Build Savings. Its website invites homeowners to hire Build Savings to install “money saving home upgrades. The LADWP provides rebates for some elements of such upgrades.

As evidence that their company was competent to do such work, an early iteration of the Build Savings website asserted it had successfully “completed 12,000 installations.”

Perhaps realizing that truth in advertising was warranted, that claim has been removed.


Coal ash & breaker boys

March 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

Anthracite FieldsEarlier this month, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented the West Coast premiere of Anthracite Fields, Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio about coal mining, it was the sort of performance that leaves you stunned, riveted to your seat—until you leap to your feet to applaud.

Perhaps Anthracite Fields resonated so deeply because I grew up in Central Pennsylvania when coal was still king.

Every fall, a driver for Arnold Fuel Co. backed one of its orange dump trucks perpendicular to the house, thrust a chute through a ground-level window, and released its load. Those small, oily black chips flooding into our coal bin fascinated me. In them was the mysterious power that kept us warm, a material substance transmuted by fire into heat, leaving rough pebbles of ash that my brother would shovel into tubs to be placed at the curb for disposal.

Anthracite was prized because it’s high carbon content and low level of impurities caused it to burn cleanly, which did not prevent a film of gritty black dust from accumulating on interior window sills that my sister and I had to dust every Saturday.

The word “oratorio” suggests Baroque stylings of Handel’s Messiah. Anthracite Fields, in contrast, is a contemporary piece, majestic in its own way, full of dissonance and surprising harmonies, spoken word, recitativo, and video projections. Singers were accompanied by a sextet of amplified instruments and implements that included bicycle wheels whose spokes provided the sound familiar to every kid who’s ever clipped a playing card to the fork of his bike.

Anthracite Fields takes us into the world of the men and boys who brought anthracite to the surface and of the women who labored to sustain households under the ever present threat of loss occasioned by cave-in or explosion. In fact, Wolfe begins her composition with a sung list of names she culled from an official compendium of all who died in coal mines between 1869 and 1916.

Consequences of coal mining were commonplace throughout the Pennsylvania of my youth: massive spoil piles of waste rock, rivulets of bright orange acidic fluids streaming from old mine sites, sudden ground subsidence, underground fires that could burn for decades.

Mining put so much debris into waterways that by the time the Susquehanna River rolled by Harrisburg, there was profit to be made sending a barge along the shore to dredge coal waste for resale. Swimming in the river from City Island’s concrete beach meant stepping into mushy piles of granular coal.

By Lewis W. Hine - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

By Lewis W. Hine – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

What I did not know until hearing Anthracite Fields was that until the 1920s, boys as young as 8 or 9 worked 10 hours a day, six days a week plucking debris from the torrent of coal pieces pouring down chutes in the breaker mill. The oratorio memorializes these “breaker boys” who earned, c. 1902, 65 cents a day, which might be reduced to as little as 25 cents when rent was deducted.

You would be forgiven for imaging that Anthracite Fields refers to a world that no longer exists. Yet in many parts of the U.S., residents can boot up their computers and recharge their cell phones, turn on a light or put clothes in the dryer, only because somewhere, coal is being burned. In Los Angeles, coal supplies 33 to 40 percent of the electricity provided by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, our city-owned public utility.


Navaho Generating Station. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

True, here are no more breaker boys and pollution control devices have significantly reduced the amounts of sulfur and ash that once poured out of power plant smoke stacks. But every year, the two generating stations serving Los Angeles* spew into the air more than 700 pounds of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, which makes its way into our waterways and up the food chain into us. Other by-products include massive amounts of carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

Anthracite Fields includes an excerpt of testimony given by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, before Congress in the mid-1930s. It’s worth considering his words:

If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.

To which I would add that we must also protect those who live with the environmental consequences of mining and burning coal. And, of course, the Earth itself.


*Intermountain Power Plant, in southern Utah, and the Navaho Generating Station in northern Arizona.

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