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Water Conservationists Step on the Grass

Pressed by drought, cities target a thirsty intruder

September 06, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

The synchronized spray of lawn sprinklers and carpets of jewel green grass -- they embody the California identity as much as sunshine and freeways.

They are also the new frontier of water conservation. After two decades of tinkering with toilets and showerheads, water managers are turning their attention to hallowed ground: the over-watered, unnaturally lush lawns of the suburban West. They are paying homeowners to tear out their grass, promoting "smart" sprinkler technology that decides for itself how much to water and jacking up rates to penalize extravagant outdoor watering habits.

Landscape watering and other outdoor use guzzles 50% to 70% of the water used by a typical Southern California household. In Las Vegas in the summer, the figure can hit 90%.

Reduce outdoor consumption, utilities figure, and there could be a lot more water to go around at a time when the West's supplies are being strained by population growth and drought. To that end, they are starting to take sometimes dramatic steps to alter -- if not to reinvent -- that suburban ideal, the yard.

"What you're seeing now is that drought over a large part of the West is forcing all of us ... to think of how we're going to create our future landscapes," said Robert Ward, director of the Colorado Water Resources Research Institute.

While the potential for saving water outdoors may be considerable, actually doing it may prove far tougher than indoor conservation.

"If we start having homes that aren't landscaped with the standard lawn, are people going to like that?" wondered Tim Piasky, director of environmental affairs for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "When people go to buy a house they're not going to pay that much attention to the showerhead. But believe me, they pay attention to the landscaping."

Indoor conservation was written into the law, in the form of plumbing codes that require the installation of low-flow toilets and showerheads. But regulating grass and rose bushes seems to be a touchier subject.

Some water experts say urban water agencies have been reluctant to seriously pursue outdoor conservation.

"I think there was a concern among water agencies that this would antagonize the building industry," said Michael Hanemann, a UC Berkeley professor who studies water issues and argues that conservation efforts have been too narrowly targeted, unable to move beyond the bathroom. "To the extent that indoor use is under control and outdoor isn't, it's necessary to do something on this now," he said.

Some water agencies are doing just that. Consider, for instance, Las Vegas, which is renowned for its profligate water ways. The regional water agency is raising rates and paying homeowners and businesses to rip out lawns.

If the level of Lake Mead, the area's main source of water, keeps dropping like a draining bathtub, new frontyard lawns may be banned altogether.

"The age of purely ornamental turf has passed. It's a luxury we can't afford in Nevada," said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The agency started its "cash for grass" program in 1999, but after it increased its payments last spring from 40 cents to $1 dollar for every square foot of grass removed, participation has ballooned. Authority officials say they could wind up giving out as much as $25 million in turf removal rebates this year.

A few thousand of that will go to Jerry Edgerton, a retired bank security officer who watched this summer as a contracting crew dug up and tossed into a dumpster the lawn he had mowed and watered for three decades.

He had been thinking of getting rid of the grass anyway, even without the rebate: He knew water rates were heading up and he was tired of cutting the grass in the searing Las Vegas heat.

"I'm retired. I don't have time to mow the lawn," joked Edgerton, who lives on a cul-de-sac in a southeast Las Vegas neighborhood of small stucco ranch houses.

A landscaping company is replanting his yard with drought-tolerant shrubs and trees and installing a new watering system.

All told, the project will cost him thousands more than he is getting from the water agency.

A few water districts in California also have adopted some sort of cash-for-grass program or are contemplating one. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, estimates that it has saved 860,000 gallons of water a day with a program that reviews commercial and industrial outdoor use and partially reimburses companies for changing their landscaping to drought-tolerant plantings and upgrading their irrigation systems.

The Crescenta Valley Water District, which serves portions of the San Gabriel foothills, started a year ago to offer rebates to homeowners who reduced the size of their lawns. The response has been modest.

"It hasn't been wildly successful," said Mike Sovich, the district's general manager. "I think people love their lawns."

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