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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.

Posted on October 14, 2016, at 2:45 p.m. ET

Ryan Christopher Jones

Jackson, 5, and Annabel, 3, in their backyard in Fresno in November 2015. Their parents, Jennifer and Chad Massingham, let the lawn in their backyard die in the summer of 2015.

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

Families Protecting the Valley is a conservative organization of family farmers that vows to "protect the future viability of this Valley by standing firm and fighting for the necessary resources and government policies that will enable this Valley to continue to flourish." March 2016.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Justin Hiltbrunner of Justin Hiltbrunner Landscape Services paints a lawn in Fresno, July 2015. Before the painting, a light sand is sprinkled on top of the dirt because it provides a better canvas for the paint to stick to.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Clovis homeowner Josh Bills mows the lawn in his backyard in November 2015.

Ryan Christopher Jones

The Massinghams' dog rolls around in dead grass in their backyard, November 2015.

Ryan Christopher Jones

If the Central Valley is going to survive, it needs to identify which plants have proven their resiliency in an arid, Mediterranean climate. "If we treat the area like a desert, it will become a desert,” says Larry Santoyo, founder of the Permaculture Academy.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Tower Urban Family Farm co-founder Nolan Schmidt waters the TUFF homestead farm site in Clovis, November 2015. The site was an unused plot of land donated by a TUFF supporter. TUFF is an urban farm co-founded by brothers Nolan and Kiel Schmidt that sells fresh produce to local communities around Fresno.

Ryan Christopher Jones

A SynLawn crew drags synthetic turf across the street for installation at a Clovis home, July 2015.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Justin Hiltbrunner of Justin Hiltbrunner Landscape Services a lawn in Fresno, November 2015.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Turf glue for a SynLawn synthetic turf installation at a Clovis home, July 2015.

Ryan Christopher Jones

Excess synthetic turf at the SynLawn office in Clovis, July 2015.

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.

  • Picture of Ryan Christopher Jones

    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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