Cities in the Western United States to harvest ornamental grass amid drought

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A group of 30 agencies that provide water to homes and businesses across the western United States has pledged to rip up a lot of ornamental grass to help retain water in the overflowing Colorado River. .

The agreement signed Tuesday by water agencies in Southern California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City and elsewhere reflects an accelerating shift in the American West away from well-manicured grass that has long been a totem of suburban life, after it took root alongside streets, around fountains. and between the walkways of the office park.

The grass removal pledge focuses on unused turf, such as in front of strip malls, in street medians or at the entrance to neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean cities plan to rip up grass at golf courses, parks or backyards, although some homeowners may pay to voluntarily replace their lawns with more drought-resistant landscaping.

As well as reducing ornamental grass by 30%, the agencies say they will increase water efficiency, add more water recycling and consider actions such as changing the way people pay for water to encourage savings.

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

The agreement did not contain details on how much water the agencies collectively committed to save, but cities account for about one-fifth of the Colorado River’s water use. The rest goes to agriculture.

“Cities — the 20% — cannot solve the math problem. But we can certainly contribute to solving the problem,” said John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The pledges, depending on data, could encourage agencies to offer payment to property owners to remove grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscaping.

The 30% scrapping commitment is the first time that water agencies across the region have committed together to a numerical benchmark that will focus on one specific type of water use. It comes as states struggle to reduce consumption to meet demands from federal officials who say cuts are needed to maintain river levels and protect public health, food systems and hydropower.

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

Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the city hoped to replace about 75 million square feet (7 million square meters) of defunct turf but the city was not sharing how much water would be conserved. He said the agency hopes to roll out programs by 2024.

Whatever the savings, the new pledges will contain far less conservation than is needed to keep water flowing through the Colorado River and prevent the largest reservoirs from shrinking to dangerously low levels.

Phoenix wants its program up and running by spring; this is the first time the city has offered payment to people for raking grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resources management consultant. Even without a program, many people have cut 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 the sprawling suburbs outside the city limits, she said.

Like others, she emphasized that saving water from 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 the water that will be needed” to conserve, she said. But, “we are giving until it hurts, as much as we can.”

The letter does not include any commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of the allocated water in the seven states that depend 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, the United States Commissioner of Land Reclamation, Camille Touton, warned the states that their use needed to be drastically reduced, but amid squabbles over who should shoulder what burden, officials failed to call to answer. The bureau has since offered varying levels of payment to water districts to reduce their use, by doing things like leaving farmland unplanted or asking urban residents to use less at home.

Proposals for some of that money are due on November 21.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to about half of California’s residents, in October urged cities and water agencies in its territory to ban any new ornamental grass in business parks, public spaces and neighborhoods that to add. The board also encouraged agencies to stop watering and consider removing grass that has already been planted.

A combination of cash incentives and fines have been used in Southern Nevada for many years to discourage grass watering and limit functional and non-functional turf. The agreement has little effect on the area because a state law passed last year requires 100% of non-functional turf to be torn up in the Las Vegas area by 2026.

Utah passed a statewide conservation program last year that included $5 million to encourage turf removal and focused on ornamental grasses on public property. But some municipalities maintain ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prevent 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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