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In the West, Drought Ends ‘Era of the Lawn’

Chronic water shortages prompt city officials to pay for turf removal and promote native plants that don't require as much water

Posted on Aug 20 2013 by Scott Gibson

Across the West, a prolonged drought has forced a number of communities to reexamine their tolerance for plush lawns. In some cities, officials are paying homeowners to tear out grass and replace it with plants that require far less water.

In Los Angeles, The New York Times reports, the city has paid homeowners $1.4 million over the last four years to rip up their lawns. In all, more than 1 million sq. ft. of grass has been removed.

Newly built parks feature mostly native plants and only small patches of grass, and outside City Hall, a grassy park has been replaced by a garden of succulent plants, The Times said.

"The era of the lawn in the West is over," Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, told the newspaper. "The water limits are insurmountable, unless the Scotts Company develops a genetically modified grass that requires almost no water. And I'm sure it's keeping them up at night."

Las Vegas provides a model

Cities that pay residents to remove grass, such as Los Angeles and Mesa, Arizona, can take their cue from Las Vegas. A long-standing program of turf removal has eliminated an estimated 165 million sq. ft. of grass and saved more than 9 billion gallons of water since the program was launched in 2003, the Times said.

The Water Smart landscaping effort managed by the Las Vegas Valley Water District pays homeowners up to $1.50 per sq. ft. to convert grass lawns to xeriscape. The program's web site offers free landscape designs, links to landscape contractors, and a variety of other resources to make the transition easier.

The water district maintains a strict watering schedule, which prohibits (with some exceptions) landscape watering from May 1 until Oct. 1 between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Customers are assigned to specific watering groups. Fines for violating the rules can exceed several thousand dollars.

The water district estimates that for every square foot of grass that's replaced with drought-tolerant species, an average of 55 gallons of water are saved per year.

Water levels in reservoirs are sinking

The backdrop for creative water conservation is a drought in the Southwest that stretches back more than a decade.

Since 2000, water levels in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam have fallen by more than 100 feet, worrying officials about long-term shortages and putting a crimp in recreational boating. Boat launching ramps and marinas have been moved to accommodate falling water levels.

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal officials are planning a reduction in the amount of Colorado River water that is allowed to flow from Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam, to Lake Mead 350 miles away. Beginning on Oct. 1, the annual water supply will be cut by 10%, the amount of water used by about 700,000 families.

The upshot will be less hydroelectric power in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The cutback also will bring the reservoir closer to the point at which the Interior Department would declare a water shortage, the newspaper said. That would lead to reduced water allocations to Nevada and Arizona.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority faces especially big challenges. The authority currently has two intake points in Lake Mead for water it pumps to its customers, but one of them is only 40 ft. below the current water level. The authority is currently building a third intake, but officials thought they'd have more time to complete the project and are now rushing to get it finished in time.

"We thought we had five years, but now we may have 24 months," Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the water authority, told the Journal.

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Image Credits:

  1. Salt River Project
  2. Southern Nevada Water Authority

Aug 20, 2013 11:15 PM ET

climate change
by shane claflin

I attended a lecture once from a climate guru (don't recall his name). he said the dry climates will become dryer and the wet climates will become wetter over time. A very serious issue.

Aug 27, 2013 12:54 PM ET

by Mike Collignon

There's a breed that takes 25% of the water of normal lawn grasses, and grows incredibly slow. I believe it was developed by UC-Berkeley in the mid-90s. Univ. of Nebraska has also been involved with some species development.

Here is an informative link I found:

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with that company.

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