The millions of visitors who fly into Palm Springs each year could be forgiven for thinking the area is not in a multi-year drought: Green lawns blaze bright against the surrounding tans and browns of desert dirt.

But little by little, year-round residents and homeowners are doing their part to add more natural desert landscape—and reduce water consumption.

The Desert Water Agency, which serves approximately 72,000 people in Palm Springs and Cathedral City, operates several programs aimed at helping customers cut down on water use. Critically, that includes a grass-removal program launched in 2014. It pays at least $3 per square foot to remove grass and replace it with more drought-friendly, natural covers—such as stones, gravel, turf or native plants.

Applicants include single-family homeowners as well as condo associations looking to remove grass throughout their properties. It is the agency’s most popular incentive program, and while popularity has gone up and down over the years, 2022 saw substantial growth.

“When drought is in the media and in the news, people do step up and take great action,” said Desert Water Agency spokesperson Ashley Metzger.

In 2022, DWA approved 244 applications to convert more than 518,000 square feet of grass to desertscape—up from 105 projects and about 218,000 square feet the year before. An additional 116 projects are approved but not yet completed. Those will represent another nearly 881,000 square feet of converted land.

The agency has more than quadrupled its budget for grass removal in recent years, going from $760,000 in 2020-2021 to more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year. Some portions of that increase have come from state and other grant funding.

Along with an augmented budget, Metzger said the DWA has tweaked the program rules over time to make it easier to participate. It now allows funds to be used toward artificial turf, which wasn’t always the case. And there’s more opportunity: Residents who meet certain income restrictions might get $6 to $8 per square foot to put toward their projects. Residents within the city of Palm Springs may be eligible to receive additional funds due to a city-backed allocation.

The DWA has also changed requirements to make it less onerous to complete the projects—such as eliminating rules around what percentage of the landscape had to be a certain type of plant. The application is more through on the front end, but the projects are easier to complete, Metzger said.

“We used to have a program where it was really easy to apply, but then there were so many rules,” Metzger said. “So we had people stuck in the middle where they applied, but they never finished the projects.”

There still are restrictions. For example, applicants can’t simply remove the grass and leave dirt in its place. Instead, they must have some sort of ground cover, like gravel or stone. Residential projects have to be completed within 90 days.

Beyond the grass-removal project, DWA also provides other incentive programs, such as rebates for smart controllers that are meant to help monitor the amount and timing of irrigation.

The agency is also on the cusp of finalizing a $150,000 grant to fund a conservation study to obtain recent local data on how much savings, in dollars, can be expected from grass-removal projects. This would help inform the agency’s grass-removal efforts by looking at what savings have been generated over the years. Currently, estimates come from a Nevada-based study, and Coachella Valley-specific information may offer its own unique lens.

“That study will really inform the amount of investment in water conservation and in grass removal in the Coachella Valley going forward,” she said.

As for the impression the area leaves on visitors, DWA is working on that, too. The agency in 2021 collaborated with the city of Palm Springs and the Palm Springs International Airport to remove a patch of grass and replace it with a desert garden. Metzger said while there is more work to be done, the garden is an example of showing visitors and travelers the alternatives.

“Now, when you walk out of the terminal, the first thing you see is a big desert landscaping site instead of grass. That has been really important for us, to just shift the image,” Metzger said. “We do want visitors to the area to know that, even though it seems lush there, we are in a desert, and water conservation is a way of life.”

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Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...