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Why does this man want you to rip up your lawn?

Opinion: The myth of a green lawn is no match for the facts about Western water

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A sprinkler head bubbles after being shut off in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It’s that time of year. 

Sprinklers and other domestic irrigation systems are springing up in front yards across the Mountain West. Brown lawns, dead from winter, seemingly turn green overnight, promising us the auspices of summer. Don’t let the sensations of the season dull the mind. Green lawns don’t belong in the arid West. 

Turf is an indoctrinated, regional aesthetic. Home Depot’s page on sprinkler systems underscores the American myth of turf: Nothing adds to a home’s curb appeal more than a lush green lawn

Western residents and businesses must eradicate the grass-is-good mindset — not because Utah is running out of water for residential communities. But drought provokes water profiteers and hustlers into selling fear-based projects that will amount to lucrative, short-term payoffs. Consider expensive Trojan horse project proposals like the Bear River Diversion for metro Salt Lake, the Lake Powell Pipeline near St. George and the West Desert pipeline proposal for Cedar City. Those communities don’t need water from dams, aquifers and rivers that aren’t in their own backyards. They just need to get smart about ripping up turf. 

If we kill our lawns we will save billions of dollars and billions of gallons of water. Hucksters and water salesmen get nothing. 

In the arid West, there are many indicators that it’s time to sacrifice our green lawns. Barring a few exceptions near the Idaho border, the median snowpack throughout Utah is ranging between 57% and 72% of normal. With winter in the rearview mirror, that means we can only keep our fingers crossed and pray for rain as the warmest months roll in. More than 90% of Utah is experiencing extreme drought conditions. In total, 60% of Western states are enduring severe, extreme or exceptional drought. 

Society cannot continue to respond to the dry times as we have in the past with big water importation projects. But, as noted above, Utah is doing more of the same across the state.  

Gov. Spencer Cox recently declared a “State of Emergency due to Drought Conditions.” Cox’s order implores water suppliers to “encourage efficient landscape watering” and “convert unnecessary turf areas to waterwise landscapes.” 

Unfortunately, the governor is just asking politely. In water policy, money talks. And the executive order doesn’t require the state spend any real cash guaranteed to make a difference. Instead the state is just paying lip service to conservation as homeowners turn on their sprinklers and local officials push dangerous projects. 

Outdoor use is where savings can easily accrue. In Utah, 60% of the residential water supply is used for growing turf, and a typical household uses twice as much water outside as necessary, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources’ Conservation Program.

To elicit real change, we have to enact price-based conservation incentives and make investments in systems that don’t require massive water grabs, pipelines and other schemes to import water. Utah’s local jurisdictions subsidize water rates via property taxes and don’t offer robust rebate programs to rip up grass. The best they do is focus on indoor use — which amounts to an incredibly small amount of residential use.  

We must address the elephant in the room — or shall I say the pink flamingo on the green lawn. We cannot expect meaningful changes in behavior if rate structures remain the same and local water purveyors fail to make investments in real conservation. 

Las Vegas, once the exemplar of profligate water waste, is an example of what to do properly. 

The myth of a green lawn is no match for the facts about western water. 

Once a proponent of a dangerous water grab that would have harmed Utah, the Southern Nevada Water Authority champions conservation incentives like turf removal. The utility commonly pays residents and businesses to rip up turf. The money comes from a mix of federal grants, tax revenues and water rates. The savings amounts to billions and billions of gallons annually. It has also led to officials saying that the need for the water grab in Snake Valley is unnecessary because of investments in conservation. 

Furthermore, Las Vegas water officials are going beyond the current incentive regime. In the Nevada Legislature, lawmakers are championing a proposal to mandate the removal of all nonfunctional turf in southern Nevada — that is, ornamental grass in business parks, on roadway medians and grassy areas that only see action when lawnmowers run across the surface. The measure will fallow around 3,900 acres of useless turf and save around 10 billion gallons of water per year. The Southern Nevada Water Authority will pay to remove and replace it with something more desert-friendly.

Utah’s water salesmen have a lot of reasons to gin up fear. 

Lake Mead will soon be in its first declared shortage. Lake Powell sits at 45% of normal. Snowpack in all of our mountain ranges is low. Soils everywhere are dry. Water is less abundant all around. 

The myth of a green lawn is no match for the facts about Western water. 

Kyle Roerink is executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a nonprofit that works to keep water local for rural communities, ecosystems and future generations of Western residents.