Much of the western United States is experiencing severe to exceptional drought, and some communities have been for years. Cities in the Southwest are making changes to their landscape to help reduce water waste.
Cities across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada are encouraging residents to replace their grass lawns and spray irrigation systems with native plants, rocks or drip irrigation systems.
Replacing grass lawns with stones and drought-resistant, native plants (also referred to as hardscaping) can drastically cut the amount of water a home or business uses. Photo by Alex Kokoulin.
Toby Bickmore, conservation services administrator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), explained that they began an in-depth study of several hundred properties in the valley with turf yards in the late 1990s to examine the water usage required. A few years later, they researched another area of the state and received similar results: About 55 gallons of water could be saved each year for every square foot of grass that was removed.
In Nevada, new building codes designed in 2005 restricted turf placement; no grass was allowed in the front yards of new construction and limited amounts of grass were allowed in backyards. For structures built before the new code, residents were given the option to receive a rebate for every square foot of grass they removed.
"There have been millions of square feet rebated since we began the program in 2000," Bickmore said. "From all different types of properties: single-family homes, multi-family homes, commercial residences, even golf courses."
The SNWA rebates customers $1.50 for each square foot of grass they remove and replace with natural desert landscaping. After 5,000 square feet, the rebate reduces to $1 per square foot.
Bickmore said that their estimates put 165 million square feet of turf rebated to date, with a savings of about 9 billion gallons of water every year.
Along with rebated lawns that are replaced, SNWA also encourages homes to switch from spray irrigation systems to drip irrigation systems.
"It's the difference between using gallons of water per hour instead of per minute," Bickmore said.
SoCal Water$mart has adopted a similar program for Southern California residents, starting rebates at 30 cents per removed square foot of grass. The program specifies that soil must have 2 to 3 inches of covering to prevent erosion, and it encourages property owners to use a "California Friendly®" garden in place of the turf, which includes drought-tolerant and native plants.
Water shortages are often a problem for Southern California. The Association of California Water Agencies states, "Three years of drought coupled with environmental restrictions on pumping in the Delta have created some of the worst water shortages" in recent memory.
There is some concern that turf replacement has some negative consequences, however. Moisture-rich grass takes sun energy for growth and evaporation. With dark stones in place of the turf, urban areas may be more susceptible to the heat island effect, which is when city temperatures remain 10 to 12 F higher at night than their rural neighbors due to more buildings, asphalt and other heat retainers.
"Grassy surfaces kept moist will be significantly cooler on a sunny day when compared to artificial turf, gravel and pavement," AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.
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