LAS VEGAS – It was a perfectly decent lawn, several hundred square feet of grass in a condominium community on the western end of this city. But Jaime Gonzalez, a worker at a local landscaping company, had a job to do.
By attaching a heavy gas sod cutter, Mr. Gonzalez cut the turf from the ground below, like peeling a potato. Two colleagues followed, collecting the strips for disposal.
Monsieur Gonzalez had little fun destroying this fescue spot. “But it’s better to replace it with something else,” he said. Soon the ground would be covered with gravel dotted with plants like desert spoon and red yucca.
Under a state law passed last year that is the first of its kind in the nation, patches of grass like this one found along roads, residential complexes and commercial sites in and around Las Vegas must be removed in favor of an environment more conducive to the desert landscape.
The offense? They are “non-functional”, which only serve an aesthetic purpose. Rarely, if ever, trampled on and kept alive by sprinklers, they are wasting a resource, water, which has become increasingly precious.
The grass ban is perhaps the most dramatic effort ever made to conserve water in the Southwest, where decades of growth and 20 years of drought exacerbated by climate warming have led to dwindling supplies from the Colorado River, which serves Nevada and six other states, Native American Tribes and Mexico.
For southern Nevada, home to nearly 2.5 million people and visited by over 40 million tourists a year, the problem is particularly acute. The region depends on Lake Mead, the nearby reservoir behind the Hoover Dam on the Colorado, for 90% of its drinking water.
The lake has shrunk since 2000 and is now so low that the original water intake was exposed last week. The regional water company, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been so concerned that it has spent $ 1.5 billion over a decade to build a much deeper outlet and a new pump station, recently put into operation, so that can draw water even if the level continues to drop to drop.
The new law, passed with bipartisan support, is intended to help ensure that available 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 trivial, that must be made to carry out these measures. Here, an advisory committee of community members, with the help of the authority, decided what the functional turf was (including sports fields, cemeteries and some plots in housing estates based on size) and what should go (almost all the rest). The law set a deadline of 2027 for the completion of the works.
Kurtis Hyde, maintenance manager at the firm where Mr. Gonzalez works, Par 3 Landscape and Maintenance, said that in some homeowners association meetings he attended, residents were quite outspoken about the prospect of losing the turf. “People get excited about the weed,” he said.
The ban follows years of extensive efforts to reduce water use, including a voluntary “cash for grass” program, which began in 1999, to allow individual homeowners to lose lawns, limit irrigation and create a team of investigators on water waste. But with no end in sight to the drought and with the region continuing to grow, measures like these have not been enough, said John J. Entsminger, the authority’s director general.
“Our community has been a world leader in urban water conservation for the past 20 years,” said Entsminger. “We have to do even better in the next 20”.
The move to replace sprinkler-powered thirsty grass with drought-tolerant, drip-irrigated plants can reduce water consumption by up to 70 percent, the water authority says. The savings are even greater if the grass is replaced by synthetic grass, which is favored by some.
Outlaw weed is easy to spot. It is located on the roundabouts and on the middle strips, borders the sidewalks and adorns shopping centers and office buildings. It is especially prevalent in the common areas of residential settlements found throughout Las Vegas and neighboring cities.
“There are small, useless pieces of grass all over the place,” said Mr. Hyde.
The authority estimates there are about 3,900 acres of grass to remove, which could produce savings of up to 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, or about 10 percent of the region’s allocation from Colorado.
Customers get a discount, starting at three dollars per square foot, but in most cases that doesn’t come close to covering removal and replacement costs with other plants.
“The cost is huge,” said Larry Fossan, facility maintenance manager at Sun City Anthem, one of the largest planned communities in the area.
Even before the law was passed, Mr. Fossan had removed the grass and installed sophisticated irrigation equipment to reduce water consumption and save money. But now under the terms of the law, which he helped establish as a member of the advisory committee, one of the lawns around the community’s main clubhouse is on the cutting board.
“I have to clear 53,000 square feet of sod, “Mr. Fossan said. He got quotes up to $ 9 per square foot to replace grass with more water-efficient landscaping.
In addition to costs, some residents fear that by losing so much grass – and likely many trees as well, to be replaced by desert-friendly species – neighborhoods will lose much of the character that attracted 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 the Las Vegas residential complexes 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 point of view we got from customers when we recommended cutting turf to save water in the past was, ‘I bought into this community because it didn’t look like a desert,’” said Mr. Hyde.
Hoot and Staci Gibson, both retired, moved a few years ago from Bend, Oregon, to one of the greenest communities in the city. Driving through the front gate past expanses of grass and shady pine trees, you might be forgiven for briefly thinking you were in New Hampshire rather than Nevada.
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His community has already removed a lot of vegetation, Mr. Gibson said. He doesn’t think he should lose much more.
He also has another, more specific concern: the fate of a common space at the end of his street, a grassy strip between the sidewalk and a wall. That’s where he and his wife walk their two golden retrievers, Abbey and Murphy
“We want to be good citizens,” said Mr. Gibson. “Everyone recognizes the problem with the drop in the level of the Colorado River.”
“On the other hand, we’re trying to say, Hey, we need – in my case, I want to be able to walk my dogs.”
The jury which called it “non-functional” decided that what was called “pet turf” was only allowed outside of pet-centric businesses such as veterinarians. There is a process in the law where a waiver may be required. But Mr. Gibson is not optimistic that an appeal will be successful.
Howard Watts, a member of the Democratic State Assembly in Las Vegas who sponsored the turf ban bill, said it would raise awareness of the scale of the problem facing the region. “The lush green landscape creates a false sense of security,” Watts said. The law “will help people who may have a bit of a disconnection – you know, every time they open it, the tap water always comes out. I think it will change that.”
The water used inside is treated through the sewer system and eventually flows back to Lake Mead. But more than half of the region’s water is used outdoors, and most of it is lost by evaporation. It has long been the focus of water authority conservation efforts.
In addition to its “cash for grass” program, the agency has successfully pushed for building codes that drastically reduce the amount of grass allowed around newer homes.
For homeowners who still have lawns, the agency’s investigative team makes sure they are observed.
Early one morning one of the detectives, Cameron Donnarumma, was slowly driving his patrol car down a residential street, following a stream that ran along the sidewalk. He stopped in front of the culprit, a house with a green lawn and a wet pavement. Sprinklers were improperly adjusted and much of the spray was hitting the pavement and draining onto the pavement.
Mr. Donnarumma can issue warnings, which can escalate into violations with escalating penalties. But in this case, the owner of the house went out and was eager to fix the problem. Mr. Donnarumma handed him some publications on water conservation and left.
“My main goal is to educate,” he said.
These and other efforts have helped cut water consumption per person by roughly half since the start of the drought in 2000. But current daily consumption has remained broadly flat for much of the past decade, when the region’s population has fallen. increased by more than 20%. And more growth is expected.
At the same time, the prospects for supply improvement seem weak. “None of the smart climate scientists are giving us much hope,” said Entsminger, director general of the water authority.
The authority has a new target to reduce consumption by 30 percent more by 2035. The peat ban and other measures will help achieve this and buy time for the region to ensure long-term sustainability, Watts said. member of the assembly.
“I have the idea it’s kind of kicking the can down the street,” he said. “But we need the extra time that measures like these provide to figure out the path ahead.”
“It’s a difficult situation,” he added. “Not just for us, it’s for the whole West.”