To save water amid a megadrought, Las Vegas bans grass

LAS VEGAS – It was a perfectly decent patch of grass, several hundred square feet of grass in a condo on the west end of this town. But Jaime Gonzalez, a worker at a local landscaping company, had a job to do.

With a heavy gasoline-powered lawn mower, Gonzalez cut the grass from the ground below, as if he were peeling a potato. Two co-workers followed, collecting the strips for disposal.

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

Under a state law passed last year that is the first of its kind in the country, patches of grass like this, found along streets and in housing developments and commercial locations in and around Las Vegas, must be removed in favor of friendlier areas. to the desert. landscaping.

The offense? They are “non-functional”, serving only an aesthetic purpose. Rarely, if ever, are they stepped on and kept alive by sprinklers, they are wasting a resource, water, which has become increasingly precious.

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

For southern Nevada, home to nearly 2.5 million people and visited by more than 40 million tourists a year, the problem is particularly acute. The region relies on Lake Mead, the nearby reservoir behind Colorado’s Hoover Dam, for 90% of its drinking water.

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

The new law, passed with bipartisan support, aims to help ensure that existing water goes further. It is an example of the kind of stringent measures that other regions may be increasingly forced to take to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

It also illustrates the choices, some difficult, some mundane, that must be made to carry out these measures. Here, an advisory committee of community members, with the help of the authority, decided what was functional grass (including athletic fields, cemeteries, and some lots in housing projects based on size) and what would have to be removed (almost all of it). the rest). The law set a deadline of 2027 for the work to be completed.

Kurtis Hyde, maintenance manager at the company where Gonzalez works, Par 3 Landscape and Maintenance, said that at some homeowners association meetings he has attended, residents have been talking a lot about the prospect of losing territory. “People get emotional about grass,” he said.

The ban follows years of extensive efforts to reduce water use, including a voluntary “cash per gram” program, started in 1999, for individual homeowners to lose their lawns, irrigation limits, and the establishment of a team of water waste investigators. Water. But with no end in sight to the drought and the region’s continued growth, measures like these have not been enough, said John J. Entsminger, the authority’s general manager.

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

The shift to replacing thirsty, sprinkler-fed grass with drip-irrigated, drought-tolerant plants could reduce water use by up to 70 percent, the water authority says. The savings are even greater if the grass is replaced by artificial grass, which is preferred by some.

Outlaw grass is easy to spot. It is found in roundabouts and in middle lanes, adjacent to sidewalks and adorns shopping malls and office buildings. It is especially prevalent in the common areas of residential developments that are found in Las Vegas and surrounding cities.

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

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

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

“The cost is enormous,” said Larry Fossan, facility maintenance manager for Sun City Anthem, one of the region’s largest planned communities.

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

I have to take 53,000 square feet of grass,” Fossan said. He got quotes as low as $9 per square foot to replace the grass with more water-efficient landscaping.

Aside from the cost, some residents fear that by losing so much grass — and probably too many trees, too, to be replaced by desert-friendly species — neighborhoods will lose much of the character that drew 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’ residential developments offer their own kind of fantasy. Grass and non-native shrubs and trees help mask the fact that the area is part of the Mojave Desert.

“A common opinion we’ve gotten from customers when we’ve recommended cutting grass to save water in the past is, ‘I shopped in this community because it didn’t feel like a desert,’” Hyde said.

Hoot and Staci Gibson, both retired, moved a few years ago from Bend, Oregon, to one of the greenest communities in town. As you pass through the entrance gate, past patches of shady grass and pine trees, you might be forgiven for briefly thinking you were in New Hampshire and not Nevada.

His community has already cleared a lot of vegetation, Gibson said. He doesn’t think he should have to lose much more.

He also has another, more specific concern: the fate of a common area on his street, a grassy strip between the sidewalk and a wall. It’s where he and his wife hang out with their two golden retrievers, Abbey and Murphy.

“We want to be good citizens,” said Gibson. “Everyone recognizes the problem with the falling level of the Colorado River.”

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

The panel that defined “non-functional” decided that what it called “pet relief turf” was allowed only outside pet-centric businesses such as veterinarians. There is a process in law where a waiver can be requested. But Mr. Gibson is not optimistic that an appeal will succeed.

Howard Watts, a Democratic state representative from Las Vegas who sponsored the grass ban bill, said it will raise awareness of the extent of the problem facing the region. “The verdant landscape creates a false sense of security,” Watts said. The law “will help people who may have a little disconnect – you know, whenever they turn on, the tap water always comes out. I think it will change that.”

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

In addition to its “cash per gram” program, the agency has successfully pushed for building codes that would drastically reduce the amount of grass allowed around newer homes.

For homeowners who 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 down a residential street, following a stream of water running down the curb. He stopped in front of the culprit, a house with green lawns and wet pavement. The sprinklers were incorrectly adjusted and much of the spray was hitting the sidewalk and seeping into the curb.

Mr. Donnarumma can issue warnings, which can evolve into violations with escalating fines. But in this case, the owner came out and was eager to resolve the issue. Mr. Donnarumma handed him some books on water conservation and left.

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

These and other efforts have helped to cut water consumption per person in half since the onset of the drought in 2000. But current daily consumption has remained largely stable for much of the past decade, when the region’s population grew by more than 20%. And more growth is predicted.

At the same time, the prospects for an improvement in supply appear weak. “None of the smart climate scientists are giving us much hope,” said Entsminger, general manager of the water authority.

The authority has a new goal of reducing consumption by a further 30% by 2035. A grass ban and other measures will help achieve this and buy time for the region to ensure long-term sustainability, said Watts, the deputy.

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

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

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