Western US cities to remove ornamental grass amid drought

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of 30 companies that supply water to homes and businesses across the western United States has pledged to rip out a lot of ornamental grass to conserve water in the Colorado River.

The agreement signed Tuesday by water utilities in Southern California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City and elsewhere shows an accelerating shift in the American West away from the manicured lawns that have long been a totem of suburban life, having taken root beside roads, around fountains and between corridors of the office park.

The lawn removal pledge targets lawns that people don’t work on, such as in front of shopping malls, on streets or at the entrance to neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean cities plan to rip up grass on golf courses, parks or in backyards, although some may pay homeowners to voluntarily replace their grass with more drought-tolerant landscaping.

As well as reducing ornamental grass by 30%, the organizations say they will boost water efficiency, add more water recycling and look at actions such as changing the way people pay for water to encourage conservation resources.

“Recognizing that a clean, reliable water supply is critical to our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling in our service areas,” the memo said.

The agreement did not include details on how much water the agencies would collectively commit to saving, but cities account for about one-fifth of water use on the Colorado River. The rest goes to agriculture.

“Cities – 20% – can’t solve the math problem. But we can certainly help solve the problem,” said John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The pledges, in light of the details, could prompt the agencies to offer payment to property owners to uproot the grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscaping.

The commitment to 30% depletion marks the first time water utilities across the region have collectively committed to a numerical benchmark that targets a specific type of water use. It comes as states try to reduce their consumption to meet demands from federal officials who say the cuts are needed to maintain river levels and protect public health, food systems and hydropower.

The letter adds additional signatories to an earlier agreement by five major watersheds reached in August. Water agencies in Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Denver are among those that signed on.

Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the city hoped to replace about 75 million square feet (7 million square meters) of defunct turf, but did not share how much water it would save. He said the agency hopes to develop programs by 2024.

Regardless of the savings, the new commitments will amount to far less conservation than is needed to keep water flowing through the Colorado River and prevent its largest reservoirs from shrinking to dangerously low levels.

Phoenix wants its schedule ready by spring. it will be the first time the city has offered to pay people to tear up grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resources management consultant. Even without a program, many people have removed grass anyway. In the 1970s, about 80% of homes had grass covering most of their property. today, it’s 9%, but that doesn’t include large suburbs outside the city limits, he said.

Like others, he emphasized that water conservation by cities will not solve the river’s problems.

“There is no level of municipal conservation in the entire western United States that could make up for the water that will need to be conserved,” he said. But, “we give until it hurts, as much as we can.”

The letter does not include commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of the water available in the seven states that rely on the river — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are about a quarter full.

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton warned that states needed to dramatically reduce their use, but amid disagreements over who should shoulder what burden, officials have not responded to her call. Since then, the bureau has offered different levels of payment for watersheds to reduce their use, through things like leaving farms without irrigation or asking city dwellers to use less at home.

Proposals for some of that money are due Nov. 21.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water for about half of Californians, in October urged cities and water utilities in its territory to ban the addition of any new ornamental grass to business parks, public spaces and neighborhoods. Her council also urged agencies to stop watering and consider removing such grasses that have already been planted.

Southern Nevada has for decades used a mix of cash incentives and fines to discourage lawn watering and limit both operational and non-operational turfgrass. The deal has little impact on the area because a state law passed last year requires that 100 percent of non-functional turf in the Las Vegas area be torn up by 2026.

Utah passed a statewide conservation program last year that included $5 million in incentives for turf removal and targeted ornamental grass on public property. However, some municipalities maintain ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prohibit residents from replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping.

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Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California. AP writer Thomas Peipert contributed reporting from Denver.

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