Exclusive Calif. community ordered to beautify lawns despite drought

Behind the gates of Blackhawk, California, an exclusive community of homes costing more than a million dollars, the warning has gone out: no more brown lawns.

Over the past year, some Blackhawk residents let their lawns die as Californians were ordered to reduce water use, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Now, the Blackhawk Homeowners Association is telling residents they must beautify their front yards, even though officially California is still in a drought.

"A lot of lawns were just let go, and it's created some problems of the atmosphere of Blackhawk not looking proper for the type of homes we have in here. ... You want everything to look nice," Blackhawk homeowner Gary Schenck said.

The association declined to comment, but Schenck confirmed he got a letter demanding the improvements be made. He agreed to meet Blackstone outside the gates.

"They've recommended you put in tanbark and drought-tolerant plants. They've offered suggestions. ... If you don't put in proper landscaping, they're gonna ask you in a nice way to improve it," Schenck said.

If those living there don't improve their lawns, the association has threatened to fine them, even to deactivate their device that opens the entrance gates.

But if Blackhawk homeowners refuse to start watering their grass again, state drought regulations could be on their side.

"It's illegal. It's a state law right now that homeowners associations cannot fine anyone for refusing to water their grass," NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti said.

Californians have been saving a lot of water, and El Nino storms this winter brought rain and snow to the northern part of the state, helping fill some big reservoirs.

Last fall, one of the state's largest sources of water, Lake Oroville, was nearly empty. Now it's full, above its historical average.

But the storms were not enough to quench the drought, which could mean an end to a Golden State staple.

"This drought, and in fact, last year, may be the end of the green lawn in California... just uses so much water. I think we have to get over it," Famiglietti said.

Some residents in the exclusive neighborhood have responded to water restrictions by replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants. Others have torn up their lawns and gone to artificial turf. But in Blackhawk, green grass remains a point of pride.

"Home values have to stay up in here, and if you start cutting back so much where the lawns are dead, people aren't going to want to buy in here," Schenck said.

The homeowners association made it clear CBS News was not welcome behind the gates. At Blackhawk, they value their privacy as much as their landscaping.