The home of Noel Vega. Vega’s Turf Terminators drip irrigation system broke and caused the water pressure to drop in his house.
Photograph by Ewan Telford for Bloomberg Businessweek

Grass Warfare in L.A.

Some well-intentioned Angelenos traded grass for gravel on their front lawns. It got ugly.

“We thought we were doing the right thing to save water,” Staci Terrace Goldfarb, a Southern California homeowner, said late last winter. “I hate looking at it.”

It had been a little more than a year since Goldfarb had the small, semicircular lawn in front of her 1960 Cape Cod in the San Fernando Valley replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping. Yet her front yard was a flat patch of gravel, the kind you can buy in bulk at Home Depot. It was the work, she said, of a company called Turf Terminators.

Goldfarb hired the company in December 2014 to install stone ground cover and low-water plants, but in the months that followed, the plants failed to thrive. Turf Terminators came back three times to replace dying yarrow, rosemary, and day lilies before Goldfarb gave up.

Fourteen months after the initial job, those shrubs looked uniformly stubby. Some were withering. Weeds poked up through the rocks. This month, Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail, “My yard just looks worse than ever. So sad, the plants may be drought tolerant, but certainly not heat tolerant. Soon I could end up with all rocks.”

Goldfarb’s property is one minor casualty in Southern California’s greater war on the lawn. For decades, owning a private patch of grass here signified an American dream achieved and man’s engineering triumph over pesky regional conditions. California’s five-year-long drought changed that.


Beverly Hills’ most verdant estates have been paraded out by the press as galling examples of oblivious consumption. Under a headline bellowing, “The grass IS greener in Hollywood,” the British tabloid the Daily Mail ran aerial photos of the healthy green yards of Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and the lower-wattage British socialite and Formula One heiress Petra Stunt.

Dead grass became a point of pride as state officials rolled out ad campaigns with slogans like “brown is the new green” and “going golden this summer.” With-it wealthier residents signaled their savvy by investing in beautiful, though dusty, re-landscaped eco-havens of olive trees, white-flowered chamise shrubs, and California golden violets with, perhaps, paths of decomposed granite wending through them.

El Niño’s promised precipitation has partially slaked the chronic ecological thirst. As some reservoirs filled up over the winter, California Governor Jerry Brown rolled back his most stringent 25 percent water conservation regulations. But climatologists are still urging residents to shed once and for all their sense of entitlement to water-rich luxuries, a point underlined by this summer’s heat waves and forest fires.

Turf Terminators, started by twentysomething entrepreneurs, pitched itself to people like Goldfarb who wanted to conserve but couldn’t afford to pay a landscape architect four or five figures. In less than two years, the company removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. During that time, Turf Terminators was the veritable face of water-saving landscaping in and around Los Angeles, praised by government officials and some customers for providing a fast, affordable way to get rid of grass. But it also left behind a trail of complaints like Goldfarb’s. Meanwhile, environmental activists accuse its owners of unwinding their efforts to help Southern California’s ecosystem in the longer term. The company’s short but profitable life span serves as an instructional fable for other cities that will inevitably face climate change-related infrastructure problems. The takeaway: Solutions are rarely simple or easy, so do a lot of research before throwing public money at the issues.

In 2014, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the country’s biggest municipal supplier and the regional wholesaler that delivers water to Los Angeles, doubled its rebate, from $1 to $2 per square foot, for homeowners and businesses removing grass. At the same time, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power raised its own rebate from $1 to $1.75 per square foot, bringing the total that landowners could claim to $3.75 per square foot within city limits.

Turf Terminators turned up with a simple promise that if the homeowner signed the rebate over to the company, it would replace the lawn at no cost. The style choices: either mulch or gravel turf, with “Mediterranean”- or “Southwestern”-style plants. “They mature as the years go on,” local television reporter Gayle Anderson said in a September 2014 segment on KTLA 5. The camera panned over a landscape thick with tall green bushes and yellow, red, and purple blossoms—a projection of a Turf Terminators project. “This is what you’re going to look forward to,” Anderson said. “Lush, lush, lush!”

Ryan Nivakoff, the now 30-year-old chief executive officer who created Turf Terminators with a group of college friends from Columbia, collected $44 million in rebate dollars for his company before closing shop.

In January, after refusing an on-the-record interview, Nivakoff hired Seth Lubove, a public-relations executive at Sitrick & Co. They’d had a slew of bad press, and had hired the same professionals called on in the wake of scandal by clients such as the Church of Scientology, Paris Hilton, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Lubove arranged an interview with Nivakoff, Turf Terminators' chief operating officer, Julian Fox, and its general counsel, Andrew Farrell, which they declined to be quoted from. Ultimately, Turf Terminators agreed to be quoted only from a written document e-mailed by Lubove, detailing the company's history and rebutting criticisms.


Nivakoff grew up in a law enforcement family in Connecticut, where his father served as Stamford’s police chief. After his graduation from Columbia in 2007—he raced through in three years—and a brief stint in the New York City Police Academy, he went to work as an analyst at a New York investment firm. Then the entrepreneurial fervor in San Francisco drew him West. There he founded an environmentally focused investment startup called Carbon Venture Partners and began looking into the state’s water economy. Rebates for water-saving measures have been a long-standing government tool for managing droughts, and the state was in the middle of one of the past century’s most severe. He hired Ron Gastelum, the former general manager of Southern California’s MWD, the wholesaler that doled out the turf rebates, and his consulting partner, Adan Ortega, the former head of communications for MWD, as advisers. They renamed the company Turf Terminators and moved it to L.A. one month before MWD’s rebates rose.

The venture quickly hit an impasse. The agency had put a requirement in place to prevent newly created outfits from cashing in on rebates; landscape contractors had to have been in business for at least three years to collect subsidies. So Nivakoff bought out an older operation, Pan American Landscaping. Adequately licensed, Turf Terminators promoted itself through television and radio advertisements. It spent a week on what its statement called “neighborhood outreach,” but found it wasn’t necessary, as demand surged. Camouflage-clad work crews and trucks that doubled as billboards on lawn job sites began to pepper the city.

One overcast morning in April 2015, as he walked to a Ralphs supermarket in South Los Angeles, Reginald Fagan, a community garden activist, noticed one of those trucks parked by a small, faded pink stucco house. He stopped to watch about a half-dozen workers plow up the grass with a small tractor.

“I was concerned,” Fagan told me in February on a tour of his neighborhood. In a breezeless heat, we stood outside that same pink house, now surrounded by gravel. It sits near the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue on a long, flat street of mostly single-story bungalows. Several other homes in the area have traded grass for Turf Terminators stone. “The way they were doing the yards, it was a quick … half-assed way of doing stuff,” he said.

Fagan, who’s 58 and tall and pitches forward slightly when he walks, grew up about 10 miles away in Compton’s little-known agricultural district—a rural pocket in the middle of the city that dates to the late 1800s, when the settler Griffith Dickenson Compton donated his land on the condition that a small area be zoned for agriculture. “We were country folks,” said Fagan, a lifelong gardener who often volunteers in horticulture departments at community colleges.

Fagan returned to the pink house three times that day to watch Turf Terminators’ crew scrape up the grass, lay a weed barrier over the soil, and install a drip line. By about 3 p.m., he recalled, they were spreading gravel. “If I took on a job like this,” he said, “I couldn’t imagine this being a one-day-type situation.” He would have taken the time to dig out the roots of the grass thoroughly, he said, and test the soil’s permeability and mineral content, which he would then augment so plants could thrive. We walked by a man with a long gray beard sweeping dirt from his curb and asked him what he thought about the Turf Terminator yards. “Oh yeah, that’s crap,” he said.

“It’s the cheapest in-and-out thing that they can possibly do,” said Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, an L.A. nonprofit that aims to restore and preserve original waterways. Winter is a tall, wiry former actress whose earth-mother vibe contrasts with the cigarette often in her hand. In early 2000, she organized local groups to secure $45 million from the state to transform 247 acres of former freight-switching yards into Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a coup. The park’s website reads: “A site once used to repair and maintain railroad cars now offers visitors the chance to restore and replenish their inner needs.”

“If you’re going to transform a landscape, you should do it in a way that adds the most value,” Winter said. That means not only using less water but also reclaiming as much of it as possible, as well as providing cooling shade to reduce evaporation and overall warming. Gravel radiates more heat than lawns, dead or thriving, helping to create, along with AstroTurf and paving, what environmentalists consider an urban heat island.


A couple of years ago, Winter got a $700,000 grant through another water nonprofit to transform two dozen grass lawns in Panorama City, a sun-baked, middle-class suburb in the Valley—at a cost of almost $5,200 per property (the remaining money went to educational workshops, two-year follow-up support, and geotechnical analysis). She took me there earlier this year. Walking past a row of four gardens she worked on, she pointed out the tiny hills of rich brown mulch where there was once level grass. Unlike weed barriers and hard stone, she said, these hills are better at keeping rainwater from flowing away into the gutter. She said the side of the street with Turf Terminator yards would get hotter. Winter had met with Nivakoff and offered her paid services to train his staff on grading to retain water, but the discussions stalled and then dissolved. “Ours is regenerative. It’s alive. It’s addressing so many things, as opposed to checking off ‘no grass,’ ” she said. On top of the mulch, native plants such as apricot mallow, coyote brush, and Baja fairy dusters grew tall and dense. Winter said they bloom and die cyclically, requiring no irrigation.

They do, though, require upkeep, and mulch needs to be replenished periodically— the main reason Turf Terminators’ customers overwhelmingly picked gravel. (One customer who chose mulch, a 64-year-old retired teacher named Don Brownlee, said he was happy overall with his landscaping, after he’d added one-third more plants on his own, but the chips weren’t the small, uniform wood bits he expected. He described a cheaper product made of “a variety of kinds of wood-related products, everything from palm fronds to pieces of insulation.” )

Don Brownlee, whose home is above, chose Turf Terminators’ mulch option. He was surprised that the chips were made of “a variety of kinds of wood-related products, everything from palm fronds to pieces of insulation.”
Photographer: Ewan Telford/Bloomberg

Adan Ortega, the only company associate willing to speak on record, whom I contacted before it hired Sitrick, said the jabs are competition-driven. “The California landscape arena is full of, like anything else, jealousies,” he said. “A lot of the criticism is from people that would’ve wanted to do something themselves and had a more nuanced but inaccessible approach. … It’s … a lot of snobbery in the native plant business.”

Nivakoff said, via Lubove’s statement, “Turf Terminators still went above and beyond implementing trenching, grading, planting extra plants and other environmentally friendly techniques that were not required by the rebate programs.” He described grading to keep groundwater in place and digging perimeter trenches to catch runoff and keep gravel from straying into walkways and driveways, as it tends to do.

Some of the people who had their turfs terminated praised the company’s convenience and customer service, saying Turf Terminators made efforts to replace dead plants and fix broken equipment, which, the company pointed out, it wasn’t contractually obliged to do. “Is it the prettiest? No,” said Megan Duffy, an actress in her early 30s, looking at her gravel yard from the doorway of the 1920s bungalow she shares with her sister in Palms, a quiet neighborhood on the city’s west side. “For us, it was a way to get started. It was a quick fix.” Duffy planned eventually to hire a landscape architect to add plants to Turf Terminators’ design.

One of the services that Turf Terminators provided its customers was taking care of the rebate paperwork. At MWD, internal e-mails I obtained through the California Public Records Act show staffers griped about the slapdash nature of the applications behind the scenes. E-mail exchanges between MWD employees and customer service reps for contractors hired by the agency to process the rebates noted lawn sizes that looked inflated, or photographs of lawns that didn’t match what was at the listed address. In one instance, Turf Terminators attached a photograph of a patch of green that, the claim processor wrote, was actually a carpet. In March 2015, the agency called in Turf Terminators’ principals for a meeting to address recurring issues with the forms. Beyond this, the company was never penalized or barred from participating in the program. Its growth continued, and Nivakoff brought in another well-connected consultant, Miguel Luna, partly to help connect with Spanish-speaking communities. Luna is a local water activist and community organizer whose business partner used to work for Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s hip, 45-year-old mayor. Garcetti is known for, among other things, growing his own food before moving from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake to the stately mayoral mansion in Hancock Park.

In April 2015, Garcetti mentioned the company during his State of the City speech. “Turf Terminators is an L.A. company that leverages rebates to replace water-guzzling lawns with beautiful, water-wise plants … for free,” he said. He went on to say that the company created “some of the thousands of new, green jobs that have bloomed since I became mayor.”

Later that month, City Councilman Mitchell Englander invited the media to watch Turf Terminators replace the lawn at his Granada Hills home. Noting the dense plantings, Kathy Ramos, a resource specialist at MWD, wrote that week in an e-mail to co-workers, “They obviously knew the job was at a council person’s, because it doesn’t look like any other project out there.” She attached a photo of Englander’s yard and one of a Turf Terminators yard in her own neighborhood.

“Wow thx for doing that,” wrote Bill McDonnell, the manager in charge of the rebate program, “it is night and day.”

The turf rebate program was tremendously popular. The MWD burned through the entire $88 million it had set aside in less than a year. By spring 2015, the agency was getting $10 million worth of applications a week. In May 2015, at a meeting in downtown L.A., the agency’s board of directors, viewing the rapid razing of lawns as a sign of the rebate program’s success, took comments from the public before voting on whether to continue the program.


Fagan, the gardener from Compton, took a bus and a train from his home in South Los Angeles to get to the noon meeting so he could express his concerns. A video of the proceedings is archived on the MWD website.

“I think there has to be standards,” he said during public comment.

Environmentalists and even some MWD board members echoed his concerns about turf replacement standards, though they didn’t specifically discuss Turf Terminators.

“Many people don’t know what to do, and they’re going after the cheapest effect,” Paul Herzog, who works for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, told the MWD board. “A program called Turf Terminators has been very popular because people are like, ‘Oh, it’s free, I don’t have to do anything.’ But the impact is not what we’re talking about.”

Ultimately, the board voted to commit an additional $340 million without any requirements on how lawns should be replaced, or with what.

In June, prominent public landscape designer Mia Lehrer, along with two of her colleagues, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times headlined “Don’t gravelscape L.A.” The column decried the board’s decision and urged citizens to slow down and think before calling in the trucks. They didn’t name Turf Terminators directly, but referenced “at least one removal contractor that promises to do it for free (the company cashes in on rebates).” Their cri de coeur: “Even ‘shallow’ L.A. can become known for beauty that is more than skin deep.” Gray water systems would be a more efficient investment than turf removal. Soil retains water, and planting deep-rooted flora encourages pollinators and would help cool the parched city.

“Yes, it certainly does matter what you replace [grass] with,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD’s general manager for the past 10 years, told me over the phone. “But not necessarily in terms of saving water. We decided that Metropolitan should not be in the business of dictating the replacement.”

Turf Terminators at work in Chatsworth, Calif.
Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Measuring water savings is complex; cities rely on meters, but while gravel or AstroTurf might appear to use less water than a sustainable garden, the meter doesn’t take into account the long-term loss from increased heat, subsequent evaporation, and the runoff that might have filled up aquifers. In any event, few of the Turf Terminators customers I spoke with could estimate their own water savings, either because their water costs are rolled into their energy bills or because they hadn’t been watering their lawns for months prior to having the grass removed. Some aren’t saving water.

Noel Vega, a film and video game producer, lives at the top of a cul-de-sac in North Hills deep in the San Fernando Valley. Wide boulevards, strip malls, and placid suburban streets crisscross what was once a rural vista full of citrus growers, their fields fed by the aqueduct famous for turning Owens Lake in the Sierras into a dust bowl. The particulate matter from that empty lake blew into nearby towns and became a decades-long litigation albatross for the Los Angeles water department; in April the department returned some water to the lake and created a bird sanctuary.

But a city built on questionable water diversions lives out its history in daily indignities. Vega’s Turf Terminators drip irrigation system promptly broke and caused the water pressure to drop in his house. The fix appeared to be fairly complicated, and he thought Turf Terminators had gone out of business, so he didn’t call. Instead he started hosing down his rosemary and other green shrubs, just as he did when he had grass.

“Now I’m wasting water,” he said earlier this year, sounding blasé. “You get what you pay for.”

Since then, things have only gotten worse, he said.

“As you know, I have been watering my ‘lawn’ since the drip irrigation installed by Turf Terminators failed almost immediately after installation,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Still, I have a good percentage of dead plants as apparently the rocks reflect heat much more than soil or turf and some plants got fried.”


Despite the huge demand—or because of it—MWD’s rebate program proved short-lived. Only three months after Garcetti’s green jobs plug, the agency abruptly announced that its $340 million in additional funding had been exhausted. The coffers were raided primarily by private companies rather than homeowners, though a single owner in Brentwood received $25,000. The two biggest payouts, of $3.2 million and $2.3 million, went to two private golf courses. While Turf Terminators got only a fraction of the total rebate money, roughly 12 percent, it was the largest single contractor to capitalize on the fund.

MWD made plans to officially shut down the turf rebate program at midnight on July 9, 2015—then moved the deadline to 11 hours earlier, at least partly because, according to internal MWD e-mails, Turf Terminators was “bombarding” its system with applications, and the water broker was afraid it would commit more money than it had left.

Within the week, Turf Terminators announced on its website that it wasn’t accepting new customers. It worked through its backlog, then laid off most of its 450-person workforce.

Later the same month, Turf Terminators changed its name to Build Savings. The operation, with a handful of former Turf employees, offers contracting services in Southern California, according to its statement. Its website says it installs no-name energy-saving windows and energy-efficient exterior paint. Gastelum, the former MWD general manager, stayed on until the beginning of 2016 but now no longer works there. The number on the website was disconnected at the time of publication of this story.

In February 2016, CBS2, a local TV news station in L.A., reported that in the month before Garcetti’s State of the City speech praising Turf Terminators, the company’s employees, friends, and relatives donated a total of $45,000 to Garcetti’s reelection campaign and to his nonprofit Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles. Garcetti told CBS2 the donations, which were legal, were also “a coincidence.” In an e-mailed statement, he told Bloomberg Businessweek that donations to the Mayor’s Fund have “no impact on the policy decisions made by my administration.”

Last November, Ron Galperin, the L.A. city controller, released his take on turf replacement with an audit assessing the city’s returns on its $1.75-per-square-foot investment. The subsidies, he concluded, were “largely a gimmick. The turf replacement gave … the lowest return on investment [compared to] other conservation programs,” such as water-efficient washing machines or toilets; Angelenos can still collect rebates for those. He didn’t single out specific businesses but did say, “As well as ordinary rate payers, beneficiaries included some affluent households and some private golf courses. One particular contractor benefited handsomely.”

But Kightlinger, MWD’s general manager, said in our phone conversation that enough money was distributed in two years to pay for the removal of 170 million square feet of grass, or 3,000 football fields—potentially saving 7.5 billion gallons of water, or enough to fill about 280 Olympic-size swimming pools per year.

“Only a couple of years from now,” he said, will officials be able to measure “what was the effect—did it change people’s attitudes?”

Earlier this year, Bill McDonnell, manager of MWD’s turf rebates, e-mailed four co-workers an outline of a presentation he was scheduled to give on the program as a postmortem. One suggested a title for the talk; then another chimed in: “I was thinking more or less something like this, ‘How Metropolitan Forged the Way for the Creation of Turf Terminators.’ ”

One minute later, someone else pinged back: “LOL.”