Is That an Outlaw Lawn? Las Vegas Has a New Approach to Saving Water

LAS VEGAS — It was a perfectly decent patch of lawn, several hundred square feet of grass in a condominium community on this city’s western edge. But Jaime Gonzalez, a worker with a local landscaping firm, had a job to do.

Wrangling a heavy gas-powered sod cutter, Mr. Gonzalez sliced the turf away from the soil underneath, like peeling a potato. Two co-workers followed, gathering the strips for disposal.

Mr. Gonzalez took little pleasure in destroying this patch of fescue. “But it’s better to replace it with something else,” he said. The ground would soon be covered with gravel dotted with plants like desert spoon and red yucca.

Under a state law passed last year that is the first of its kind in the nation, patches of grass like this, found along streets and at housing developments and commercial sites in and around Las Vegas, must be removed in favor of more desert-friendly landscaping.

The offense? They are “nonfunctional,” serving only an aesthetic purpose. Seldom, if ever, walked on and kept alive by sprinklers, they are wasting a resource, water, that has become increasingly precious.

Outlawing grass is perhaps the most dramatic effort yet to conserve water in the Southwest, where decades of growth and 20 years of drought made worse by a warming climate have led to dwindling supplies from the Colorado River, which serves Nevada and six other states, Native American tribes and Mexico.

For Southern Nevada, home to nearly 2.5 million people and visited by upward of 40 million tourists a year, the problem is particularly acute. The region depends on Lake Mead, the nearby reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado, for 90 percent of its drinking water.

A tourist at Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. The lake, which supplies 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water, is lower than at any point since the dam was built in the 1930s.
The new pumping station at Lake Mead, part of a $1.5 billion project that will allow Southern Nevada to continue to receive water even as the lake level continues to drop.

The lake has been shrinking since 2000, and is now so low the original water intake was exposed last week. The regional water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been so concerned that it spent $1.5 billion over a decade building a much deeper intake and a new pumping station, recently put into operation, so it can take water even as the level continues to drop.

The new law, which passed with bipartisan support, is meant to help ensure that what water there is goes further. It’s an example of the kind of strict measures that other regions may increasingly be forced to take to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

It also illustrates the choices, some hard, some mundane, that have to be made to carry those measures out. Here, an advisory committee of community members, with help from the authority, decided what was functional turf (including athletic fields, cemeteries and some parcels in housing developments based on size) and what would have to go (most everything else). The law set a deadline of 2027 for the work to be completed.

Kurtis Hyde, maintenance manager at the company where Mr. Gonzalez works, Par 3 Landscape and Maintenance, said at some homeowners association meetings he’s attended residents have been quite vocal about the prospect of losing turf. “People get emotional about grass,” he said.

The ban follows years of extensive efforts to cut water use, including a voluntary “cash for grass” program, begun in 1999, for individual homeowners to lose their lawns, limits on watering, and the establishment of a team of water waste investigators. But with no end in sight for the drought, and with the region’s continued growth, measures like these haven’t been enough, said John J. Entsminger, the authority’s general manager.

“Our community has been a world leader in urban water conservation for the last 20 years,” Mr. Entsminger said. “We have to do even better over the next 20.”

The move to replace thirsty, sprinkler-fed grass with drought-tolerant, drip-irrigated plants can reduce water use by up to 70 percent, the water authority says. The savings are even greater if the grass is replaced by artificial turf, which is favored by some.

Strips of grass, cut away from the soil underneath and ready for disposal.
Larry Fossan, facilities maintenance manager at Sun City Anthem, a large planned community near Las Vegas, on a stretch of lawn that will have to be removed.

Outlaw grass is easy to spot. It’s found at roundabouts and on median strips, adjoins sidewalks and adorns strip malls and office buildings. It’s especially prevalent at the common areas of the residential developments that are found all over Las Vegas and neighboring cities.

“There are little useless pieces of grass everywhere,” Mr. Hyde said.

The authority estimates there are about 3,900 acres of grass to be removed, which could yield savings of up to 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, or about 10 percent of the region’s allocation from the Colorado.

Customers get a rebate, starting at three dollars per square foot, but in most cases that doesn’t come close to covering the cost of removal and replacement with other plants.

“The cost is huge,” said Larry Fossan, facilities maintenance manager at Sun City Anthem, one of the largest planned communities in the area.

Even before the law was passed, Mr. Fossan had been removing grass and installing sophisticated irrigation equipment to reduce water use and save money. But now under the law’s terms, which he helped set as a member of the advisory committee, one of the lawns around the community’s main clubhouse is on the chopping block.

I have to take out 53,000 square feet of sod,” Mr. Fossan said. He’s gotten quotes of as much as $9 a square foot to replace the grass with more water-efficient landscaping.

The southwest region of Las Vegas is expanding.
The water authority says that grass removal under the law could save up to 9.5 billion gallons of water annually.

In addition to cost, some residents worry that in losing so much grass — and likely many trees as well, to be replaced by desert-friendly species — neighborhoods will lose much of the character that attracted them to Las Vegas in the first place.

Like the city’s famous Strip, with its row of fakes including an Eiffel Tower and an Egyptian pyramid, many of Las Vegas’s residential developments offer their own kind of fantasy. Grass and nonnative shrubs and trees help to mask the fact that the area is part of the Mojave Desert.

“A common view that we got from customers when we in the past recommended turf reduction to save water was, ‘I bought in this community because it didn’t look like a desert,’” Mr. Hyde said.

Hoot and Staci Gibson, both retirees, moved a few years ago from Bend, Ore., to one of the city’s most verdant communities. Driving through the entrance gate past stretches of grass and shady pines, you might be forgiven for briefly thinking you were in New Hampshire rather than Nevada.

His community has already removed a lot of greenery, Mr. Gibson said. He doesn’t think it should have to lose much more.

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He also has another, more specific worry: the fate of a common area down his street, a grassy strip between the sidewalk and a wall. That’s where he and his wife walk their two golden retrievers, Abbey and Murphy

“We want to be good citizens,” Mr. Gibson said. “Everybody recognizes the issue with the Colorado River level dropping.”

Gravel and, eventually, drought-tolerant plants will replace grass at a Las Vegas intersection.
Hoot and Staci Gibson are concerned that the strip of grass where they walk their dogs Murphy and Abbey will have to be removed under the law.

“On the other hand, we’re trying to say, Hey, we need — in my case, I want to be able to walk my dogs.”

The panel that defined “nonfunctional” decided that what it called “pet relief turf” was allowed only outside pet-centered businesses like veterinarians. There is a process in the law where a waiver can be sought. But Mr. Gibson is not optimistic that an appeal would succeed.

Howard Watts, a Democratic state assemblyman from Las Vegas who sponsored the turf ban bill, said it will raise more awareness of the scope of the problem the region faces. “The lush green landscape creates a false sense of security,” Mr. Watts said. The law “will help people who may have a bit of a disconnect — you know, whenever they turn it on, the tap water always comes out. I think it’s going to change that.”

Water used indoors is treated through the sewer system and eventually flows back to Lake Mead. But more than half of the region’s water is used outdoors, and most of that is lost through evaporation. It’s long been the focus of the water authority’s conservation efforts.

In addition to its “cash for grass” program, the agency successfully pushed for building codes that sharply reduced the amount of grass allowed around newer homes.

For homeowners that still have lawns, the agency’s team of investigators makes sure they are observed.

Early one recent morning one of the investigators, Cameron Donnarumma, was slowly driving his patrol car along a residential street, following a stream of water running down the curb. He stopped in front of the culprit, a house with a green lawn and a wet sidewalk. The sprinklers were improperly adjusted and much of the spray was hitting the sidewalk and draining to the curb.

Cameron Donnarumma, a water waste investigator, on patrol in a Las Vegas neighborhood.
Mr. Donnarumma documented water running off a sidewalk into the curb from sprinkler overspray.

Mr. Donnarumma can issue warnings, which can escalate to violations with increasing fines. But in this case, the homeowner came out and was eager to fix the problem. Mr. Donnarumma handed him some water-conservation literature and left.

“My main goal is to educate,” he said.

These and other efforts have helped cut per-person water consumption by about half since the drought began in 2000. But the current daily consumption has remained largely flat for much of the past decade, when the region’s population grew by more than 20 percent. And more growth is forecast.

At the same time, the prospects for improvement in the supply seem dim. “None of the smart climate scientists are giving us a whole lot of hope,” said Mr. Entsminger, the water authority general manager.

The authority has a new goal to cut consumption by 30 percent more by 2035. The turf ban and other measures will help achieve that, and buy the region time to ensure long-term sustainability, said Mr. Watts, the assemblyman.

“I get the idea that it’s kind of kicking the can down the road,” he said. “But we need the additional time that measures like these provide to figure out the path forward.”

“It’s a stark situation,” he added. “Not just for us, it’s for the entire West.”

Lake Mead has receded far from a hotel and marina, now abandoned, in Echo Bay, Nev.
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