Spokane residents may now opt to reduce the green space in their yards to receive up to $500 back on their utility bills.
The city’s water department is accepting applications for their “Spokanescape” program, which is intended to reduce the irrigation stress on the Spokane aquifer during the dusty summer months. Qualifying applicants will receive a 50-cent reduction on their bill for every square foot of turf space that is converted to mulch or drought-resistant plants.
Rebates will max out at $500 each year, and applicants must commit to removing at least 300 square feet of turf space in their yards. Dan Kegley, the city’s director of water and wastewater management, said the program is limited to doling out $30,000 in rebates citywide this year, but he hopes the program will be expanded.
“It’s not anything that we can do overnight,” said Kegley, noting that 46 percent of the city’s water is used by residential properties, much of that going toward lawn irrigation. “It’s kind of a change in culture, if you will, to get people thinking about what is beautiful, rather than lush green lawns.”
Applicants must have an active water account with the city and provide plans for the conversion of their lawns. To prevent residents from simply paving over lawns or using artificial turf , approved plans must include 50 percent coverage by mature plants.
The water department has developed a list of dozens of potential drought-resistant native plants in a guidebook, available online at waterstewardship.org. The city also will develop demonstration gardens at water department- and sewer department-owned properties throughout town, including Upriver Dam, Kegley said.
City Councilman Breean Beggs has been working with the water department on efforts aimed at conservation. Emphasizing the program is voluntary, he said that those who take advantage now could avoid higher water service costs in the future, should climate conditions continue to trend toward more arid summers.
“At some point, if our climate keeps changing, this is going to insulate them from future costs,” Beggs said.
Spokane had a similar program several years ago, but it didn’t catch on at the time, said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works and utilities department. Other cities in the western U.S., including in the drought-gripped regions of Southern California, have adopted similar rebate programs.
Residents in California were concerned in 2015 when it appeared the amount of their refund checks could have triggered tax payments to the IRS, according to reports by the Los Angeles Times. Residents will not be receiving money back in Spokane, just credits attached to their bill.
The idea is not unique to the region. Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, instituted smaller-scale versions of the same policy in 2015, offering customers a flat $150 credit for turf removal.
Art Garro, superintendent of maintenance and operations for the city of Pullman, said the program hasn’t been as popular as other rebates, which he attributed to a lack of marketing and need for more education on the types of plant life that should replace the turf.
“We need to be giving the citizens some idea about what they could do,” said Garro, who met with Kegley about the program in Pullman. “I think it’s confusing when you say, ‘as long as you remove irrigated turf you’re going to get a rebate.’ You can’t just remove the turf and put in concrete.”
Only 10 applications have been submitted for the Pullman program in its three years of existence, Garro said, paling in comparison to a rebate offered for putting in lower-flow toilets. But he hopes the creation of a guidebook, like the one Spokane created for the launch of its program this summer, will help its popularity.
Kegley and Beggs said they hope Spokane’s new rebate program, which is accepting applications now, will catch on not only within city limits, but across the region.
“When it comes to water resources, we certainly want to work to a solution sooner rather than later,” Kegley said.
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