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As California's Economy Reels From Drought, At Least One Industry Is Doing Fine


The worst drought in California history has hit the economy here hard - billions of dollars lost, farmers letting hundreds of thousands of acres go dry, consumers being asked to cut back. But some industries are booming.

SHARI COLLINS: We are bombarded. We probably can't even handle the business that's coming in today. We probably get a couple phone calls a day. We have a couple appointments. We've added some new employees. We're going to be getting a new truck soon. We have two crews already. We're looking to adding a third crew. So it's exciting - very exciting time.

RATH: Landscaper Shari Collins - she's the owner of Gardens 4 the Soul, a landscaping company here Los Angeles. Shari says, in the last year, transforming yards into drought-friendly landscapes has become 90 percent of her business. That's thanks, in part, to a statewide initiative to remove 50 million square feet of lawns across California. When we talk to Shari Collins, she and her crew are busy tearing up a backyard north of LA.

COLLINS: Well, right now, they're removing a stump from a huge palm tree that was there. And they're also removing some stumps on the slope from some huge trees and bushes to get the slope ready for planting.

RATH: A job like this takes around three weeks. There's the demolition phase - killing off the old grass, pulling out water hungry plants - and then phase two.

COLLINS: What we're putting up there are agaves. We're putting some California-native salvias up there - succulents. Just a lot of beautiful, colorful plants that are drought-tolerant. They probably only need to be watered once a week versus every day or every other day. That's going to actually give them a lot of color and beauty.

RATH: Then they'll be putting in a new eco-friendly irrigation system. And finally...

COLLINS: A thick mulch because that's going to save water and keep the weeds down, and that actually makes it look pretty, too. You could get pretty gorilla hair or some kind of chips. Just - it's like icing on the cake of their landscape.

RATH: Shari has been in this business for 18 years. But she says it's taken this drought to change people's minds about the place of lush lawns and rose gardens here in southern California.

COLLINS: We did a job about a month ago, and he's in a neighborhood, like this neighborhood, that has a homeowners association. Two years ago, he could not take his lawn out and replace it with a drought-tolerant. The HLA would not approve it. Today, we did a design for him, and he got it approved immediately.

RATH: Other landscapers and gardeners are taking note of the shift. It means less monthly grass-cutting and less leaf-blowing.

COLLINS: It's going to be a different kind of maintenance, a more specialty maintenance - some more trimming, removing weeds, adding new mulch, maintenance on irrigation. In fact, it's going to be more important because if you don't properly take care of irrigation, and something's broken, and water's going down the street, homeowners are going to get fined. So they're going to have to rely stronger on the gardeners to look at their system.

RATH: The local government is helping foot the bill of all this new irrigation and landscaping. Since last July, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has paid $34 million in rebates to residents and companies ripping out their lawns. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.