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Conservation at Odds With Greenery Rules

Landscape: Western areas facing drought push for homeowners to try more xeriscaping. But they can run afoul of planting guidelines.


SALT LAKE CITY — The city-owned parking strip in front of Josh Blumental's home has become one of the front lines in Utah's growing battle over water conservation.

"One-hundred-ninety-two square feet of trouble," he said.

When morning glory choked out his grass last summer, Blumental recalled a flurry of water-conservation messages from City Hall and began installing a rock garden in his frontyard.

The citations began arriving this spring, warning Blumental that his strip didn't comply with city codes and threatening him with fines of $25 a day until he planted more greenery.

City officials later called it a mistake, saying enforcement officers misinterpreted the law. But as Utah enters its fourth year of drought, the dispute illustrates the dilemma of balancing a limited water supply with a public demand for greenery.

"What happened with Josh's strip is the intent of the law didn't match exactly to the letter of law," said Stephanie Duer, the city's water conservation officer. "Salt Lake City didn't intend to cause problems for anyone."

For years, Western cities have sought ways to save water, and some have begun writing conservation into law.

In Albuquerque, a 1995 ordinance limits high-water lawns to 20% of total lot size. In Carson, Calif., the water district is testing a desalination pilot plant this week, hoping to cut dependence on Colorado River water.

It's impossible to develop national xeriscape guidelines because, by definition, natural landscaping differs by region, said Beth Young, spokeswoman for the American Society of Landscape Architects in Washington, D.C.

"Too often, people associate xeriscape with desert landscaping," she said. "What it means is smart land use. Don't put plants in the ground that don't belong and try to use plants that will save water."

Utah is trying to do its part.

Perched on the edge of a desert, Salt Lake and other communities along the 80-mile Wasatch Front get twice as much rain as more arid regional cities such as Albuquerque or Phoenix and four times as much as Las Vegas. But that still is only 16 inches a year, to support neighborhoods of lush green lawns and canopies of shade trees.

When mountain snowpacks dwindled in recent years, Gov. Mike Leavitt and other elected officials began emphasizing water conservation statewide. Last year, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson even had his yard xeriscaped.

But despite the public call for conservation, city enforcement officers informed Blumental this spring that city code requires his strip had to be 33% greenery. When he appealed, Duer told him he has three years to comply.

There's more to water conservation, though, than removing the grass. In Blumental's case, Duer said his Siberian irises--planted next to ornamental stacks of rounded river rocks--need a lot of water and thus weren't the best choice for his full-sun strip. Thyme or low-growing juniper would have been better, she said.

"His plants are not particularly water conserving," Duer said. "What is water conserving about his landscape is that there's no irrigation system. That's where he's saving water."

For that matter, Duer said irrigation systems at many homes are big water wasters and that drip lines are more efficient for natural landscapes than pop-up or rotating sprinklers.

"The real focus should be how we deliver water," she said.

Even if codes become friendlier to the practice, there is a question of whether city dwellers will accept the weedy landscapes native to the Wasatch Front that qualify as xeriscapes. Landscape architect David C. Racker of Bountiful, just north of Salt Lake, said many of his customers change their minds after seeing xeriscaping.

"If you're looking for beauty and consistency, predictability and uniformity, then xeriscape plants in this part of Utah generally deviate from that," said Racker, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Blumental won't argue the point. After his experience, he believes residents "have an expectation of what they want" for their yards, and it's not natural landscapes.

"They think they live in Omaha or Kansas City, but they don't," he said. "You'd think with the amount of people living here, they'd consider [xeriscapes]. To not do it, that comes with a price. You have to make a choice."

From the city's standpoint, Duer hopes to channel publicity generated by the quarrel toward water-conservation education. She's also reviewing the ordinance to make it more cohesive, taking into account needs of different neighborhoods.

"This was a good thing," she said. "I thought I knew what to do with the ordinance, but I didn't have an example in my head. Now, I can ask myself, 'How can I word this so the landscape is approved?' "

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