California's Historic Drought Has Residents Getting Creative With Their Lawns

The drought in California is causing citizens to resort to some interesting problem-solving.

In Central California, the lawn is in a state of existential crisis. For years, vibrant greenery landscaped most neighborhoods, even in the height of summer, when temperatures reach 115 degrees. Between 2012 and 2015, a devastating drought assaulted the San Joaquin Valley, and the region was forced to change its lawn habits. But the greater question remains: Is it responsible to even have lawns in a climate that is historically prone to drought?

Larry Santoyo, creator of the Permaculture Academy in Los Angeles, says that “the lawn is an unspoken badge of honor as a homeowner, so there’s a lot of attachment to it. But almost none of it is biological — it’s emotional.”

This photo series, Grow or Die, looks into the emotional attachment to these patches of grass that have become synonymous with American success. The photo essay explores the reactive trends to the drought, from ornamental lawn-painting and synthetic turf installations to desert landscaping and community gardens.

With increasing rain levels in 2016, the state of California has dropped its water conservation regulations, although many local water districts have kept restrictions in place. According to the state government, conservation is down overall, leaving one to ask if residents will implement changes even when it is not mandated by the state.Time will tell if the Valley will adapt or not, but one thing is certain: The drought may be have eased for now, but it will come back. Will California be ready when it does?

Ryan Christopher Jones is a documentary photographer currently based in New York City and originally from California's Central Valley. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsday.

  • I am a photojournalist originally from California’s Central Valley and currently based in New York City. I grew up in a middle-class agricultural town that primed my curiosity in suburban America, and much of my work explores the complex foundations of what it means to be an "American." I am available for assignments anywhere, though you’ll likely find me at metal shows and taco stands on both coasts.

    Contact Ryan Christopher Jones at

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