WEST JORDAN — Three years ago, Alexandra Eframo noticed her neighbors were using a lot of water: Sprinklers kept their lawns a deep green in the middle of July, and gutters swelled with runoff from hoses used to clean cars.
So, she turned off her sprinklers and let her lawn die.
Now, the 73-year-old West Jordan resident is intent on establishing her "desert lawn," a yard filled with waterwise and drought-resistant plants that never see a drop of water except when Mother Nature decides to send rain.
And she said it's paying off. Before changing her water-using ways, Eframo's monthly water bill was more than $100. Now, she said, she has it down to about 85 cents.
But she's hit a roadblock.
In October, she was given citations from city prosecutors, accusing her of violating city codes on landscape plants and ground coverage.
Her neighbors, she was told, had complained her yard was ugly and was deteriorating their property values.
"Well, that's a matter of opinion," she said. "I love it. They said my yard looks horrible. Well, it's my desert lawn in progress."
Aspen trees in her yard, left by the previous owner of her home, have begun sprouting new saplings, likely as a response to the decreased water they've been receiving. She sees the little trees as an answer to her prayers after a dispute with a neighbor brought down a fence in her front yard. But the city sees them as violating a code that requires trees to have a minimum 2-inch diameter.
Currently, she has about 160 plants — about 30 different varieties — in her yard, including ice plants, woolly thyme, clumping baby's breath and pink passion and sapphire flowers — just about anything she can find at a local nursery with the label "drought-resistant" or "waterwise" on it.
But the city says she doesn't meet requirements on ground cover, vegetation types and other city codes. The way she reads the city code, however, she believes the rules only apply to new developments and exempt single-family homes.
Besides, she said, "I think this is going to look pretty whenever it's all done."
So the retired Delta Air Lines employee is taking her citations to the city's justice court. She plans to fight the charges in court, all the way to trial if necessary. Most residents, she said, would just pay the $750 in fines and get into compliance with city code, but Eframo said she is fighting for a principle.
"I want a desert lawn," she said. "I'm going to pursue trying to get the city, and hopefully the state, to encourage more desert lawns."
Not up to code?
City officials say a "desert lawn," typically known as xeriscaping, isn't out of the question. In fact, they say the city's code encourages it.
"The residential code, as I understand it, is pretty simple," said Steve Glain, West Jordan's water conservation technician. Front yards must have at least two street trees, he said, and at least 50 percent of the yard must have some sort of plant coverage.
But that doesn't have to be traditional grass, he said. In fact, the code says that some of a yard's plants are required to be drought-resistant — though it doesn't specify how many of the plants.
"The idea is to encourage a wider variety of landscapes, including drought-tolerant plants and efficient irrigation systems," Glain said. "However, it's a balanced approach. The city has not seen a need at this point to require xeriscaping, but we do allow it, as long as it's not 100 percent rock."
He said the city is trying to ease residents into a greater comfort level with nontraditional yards. Commercial landscaping codes allow as little as 10 percent plant coverage, and "we'll have to see if those same ideas catch on for residential properties later."
The biggest problem, he said, is that allowing residents free reign with their waterwise yard-planting would likely lead to conflicts with neighbors who want to see more traditional yards when they look down the street.
"We encourage xeriscaping. But the general culture in Utah toward landscaping is very conservative, and people still love their grass, they love to have lots of green, and it's going to take a while," Glain said. "There's going to be a transition in order to implement more xeriscaping and to have it be considered acceptable. Everyone lives in a neighborhood, so it's only logical that you should respect the expectations of your neighbors as well, which means any extreme differences in design are going to cause some problems."
Walking the line
David Rice, conservation programs manager at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said sometimes there is a fine line between a xeriscaped yard and abiding by city codes.
"There's a desire for aesthetics and functionality, but there's also the need to conserve water," he said.
And when it comes down to it, cities have the jurisdiction and the authority to require residents to keep their yards looking a certain way.
But that doesn't mean there's no room for compromise.
"We can sometimes call the city and talk to them about their ordinance," he said. "Sometimes there may just be some things that are not clear."
But when it comes down to it, the city's code is the final word.
"For the most part, if the city has its ordinance and the City Council has voted that way and the resident is in clear violation, there is really no recourse for the resident except to comply with that city code," he said.
But in most cities in the Salt Lake Valley, a little planning and research can give both sides what they want: Residents can reduce their water use but still have an aesthetically pleasing yard that meets city codes.
Rice's primary advice: "Before you start anything, check with your local code."
And he said most cities have codes that allow for — maybe even encourage — yards that use less water. Getting cities into that mindset is still a work in progress, he said.
"They're coming along," he said. "Most of the cities are recognizing the need for conservation, so they're either revisiting their codes and changing some things or making clarifications. There's still a lot of debate, and there's still some people that may hold office that want things a certain way. Our member (cities) — most of them — have conservation programs and they try to promote it the best they can."
He said there are plenty of resources for people who want to get their xeriscaping correct. The conservancy district's demonstration garden, at 8215 S. 1300 West, displays a wide variety of native plants and other plants that do well with little water in Utah's dry climate. Residents can wander through the garden any time of the year, during the district's regular business hours, to get ideas and see what they like.
From May 1 to Oct. 1, the garden is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week, with horticulturists on hand to answer questions and offer advice.
Rice also recommended visiting www.slowtheflow.org, where residents can find links to conservancy district publications on all kinds of xeriscaping subjects, from park strips to perennials to trees. The Web site also gives information on the basics of getting started with a xeriscaped yard.
But Eframo believes she is being mistreated for taking a proactive step to save water. And with the help of an attorney who offered to take her case pro bono, she intends to fight — eventually, she hopes, encouraging cities to update their ordinances.
"I think the city is dead wrong on this," she said. "They should be encouraging desert lawns instead of persecuting me and harassing me. I'm taking a stand trying to save water. Now I'm being persecuted, in my opinion."