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How one Utah lawmaker proposes to conserve water amid ongoing drought

Legislation would ban cities and HOAs from requiring residents to maintain lawns

Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City in 2021.
Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. A House bill has been filed that would would prohibit government and private entities from requiring property owners to plant or maintain lawns.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In spite of the snowstorms that have blanketed the Wasatch Front in recent weeks, Utah continues to face water shortages and drought.

One potential solution, proposed by Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, would prohibit governments or homeowners associations from requiring residents to maintain lawns.

HB95 defines lawn or turf as “nonagricultural land planted in closely mowed, managed grasses,” and does not include golf courses, parks or athletic fields. By banning government and private entities from requiring lawns, Ward said he plans to give individual homeowners more choice in their yards — and hopefully reduce water usage along the way.

“We are looking for all kinds of little ways to use less water, and lawns are one of the ways that we use quite a lot,” he said. “We don’t have to use that much if we could do some other things. If a homeowner wishes to do something else with their yard, they need to have other options. No one should be forcing them to put in lawn.”

‘They were wanting me to start watering’

Ward said that many HOAs around the state, including some cities like Salt Lake City and Sandy, require that homeowners maintain a certain percentage of their yard as lawn or vegetation. Salt Lake City’s requirement of one-third vegetation for park strips and front yards is aimed at maintaining the urban forestry and reducing effects of urban heat islands.

For some homeowners, like Salt Lake City resident Rachel Simeon, the requirements present potential financial burdens, as cities can levy fines on those not in compliance.

Last July, Simeon said she received a warning from the city that she needed to increase the amount of vegetation on her park strip by mid-August or face daily fines until she was able to comply.

“I was able to come into compliance by adding some vegetation, but I did try to fight it,” Simeon said. “Because, we are in a megadrought, and they were wanting me to start watering plants. It’s hard to plant when it’s mid-August.”

Flip your strip

Water conservancy districts across the state have recently promoted Flip Your Strip programs where residents are offered buybacks for replacing lawn with water-efficient plants and irrigation systems. Last year, Gov. Spencer Cox announced that he wanted to roll out a similar program statewide.

Linda Townes Cook, public information manager for the Jordan Valley Conservancy District, said the organization focuses on land development because of the long-term ramifications of developing land.

“Whatever we decide, stays in place for decades,” she said.

Cook said she is intrigued by the bill’s potential, given that 60% of Jordan Valley’s culinary water is used for landscaping. In her experience, most Utahns are willing to do their part to conserve when they need to, but the idea of installing xeriscaping or low-water lawns can be daunting for some.

Flip Your Strip and other programs can help nudge residents in that direction, Cook said, so long as local laws allow it.

What is xeriscaping?

Xeriscaped landscapes require less water than turf yards because they are made up of rocks and low-water and, often native, vegetation. Utah has become used to green grass as a standard part of life, Ward said, but living in a desert requires certain adjustments of what “normal” landscaping is.

“I think 20 years ago, many people said lawns are the only thing that looks good, and everything else looks junky,” he said. “Everybody knows that’s not the case (now), a lawn can look junky, and there are plenty of other things you can put in there that still look nice.”

Ward said he expects some cities and many HOAs will oppose the bill, in part because many people think grass is more aesthetically pleasing and easier to maintain than low-water landscaping. Cook said she hears many of the same concerns about maintenance of xeriscaped lawns, but said that they get a bad rap because they aren’t as well understood.

“I appreciate that people are xeriscaping,” Simeon said. “I think we need to push that more. We live in an arid landscape, having lush, green grass is kind of ridiculous.”

The future of Utah’s water

Ward knows his proposal is only a small part of water conservation in the state, but considers it a step in the right direction, along with this week’s summit to save the Great Salt Lake.

“Everybody understands that we have to do some things differently, and this is only one of them,” he said, stressing the potential harms should the lake disappear. “We have to plan ahead so that doesn’t happen. I think more people are coming to understand that, so I think there will be good support for (the bill). But you never know until you try, right?”

Water conservancy districts face an uphill climb to stay ahead of growth in Utah, according to Cook, because many new developments still prioritize lawn and turf.

“We will look at all the lawn we’ve replaced, and all the water-efficient landscaping that we put in, and then turn around and there’s a whole development where they’ve just laid sod,” she said. “We feel like we’re chasing our tails because there’s this mindset in Utah that lawn is what’s desirable and what looks good. We’re trying to fight against an old mindset.”