The southwestern U.S., an already arid region of the country, has been parched by droughts over the last few years. Now, a number of the region’s cities are cracking down on a feature of American households that the EPA says sucks up more than 15 percent of Americans’ overall water usage — the grassy lawn.
On Sunday, the New York Times documented the growing aversion southwestern cities have to grass, something city officials view as an impractical and water-intensive luxury. Los Angeles, a city that in 2007 experienced its driest year in 130 years, implemented a grass-removal incentive program in 2009 and has paid homeowners who tear up their lawns a combined total of $1.4 million since then. The city pays $2 per square foot of grass, a rate that increased from $1.50 this spring after the state experienced an unusually dry winter. In place of grass, the homeowners are encouraged to plant native, drought-resistant plants like California lilacs and species of succulents and cacti, creating a desert garden in the place of a standard, grassy lawn. Between 40 and 70 percent of the water consumed in Los Angeles goes to outdoor usage, according to the city’ Department of Water and Power, and most of that is used to irrigate lawns — statistics that make incentivizing lawn removal logical.
Los Angeles isn’t the only city to adopt tactics like this in the face of decreased water resources. The practice of replacing grass with turf or drought-resistant plants began in 2003 in Las Vegas, a city that, despite its lavish fountains, has been a pioneer in water conservation. The city pays homeowners $1.50 for each square foot of lawn they remove or let die — the climate is so dry in Las Vegas that grass will shrivel and die in less than a week if it isn’t watered. Las Vegas also has a tiered system for paying for water: up to a certain point, residents pay $1.16 per thousand gallons of water, but after that point is reached, water rates increase up to $4.58 per thousand gallons. In Austin and El Paso, Texas, residents can only water their lawns after the sun sets, and can be fined up to $475 if they’re caught watering during the day. And Mesa, Arizona’s Grass-to-Xeriscape program pays residents a $500 rebate if they replace 500 square feet of grass with a “water-thrifty landscape.”
So far, despite some residents’ attachments to the idea of a grassy lawn, the programs seem to be working. From 2000 to 2010, the average per-person water use in Las Vegas declined by 30 percent, with the grass-removal program alone saving 9.2 billion gallons of water. The average square foot of grass in Las Vegas, a city which typically only gets about 4 inches of rain each year, takes 73 gallons of water to keep alive, and so far, the city has paid residents and business-owners $200 million to remove 165.6 million square feet of grass. About 848 Los Angeles households have participated in their city’s rebate program so far, converting 1.15 million square feet — about 26 and a half acres — of grass into drought-resistant landscaping.
But an ongoing, severe drought in much of the Southwest could force many other southwestern cities to adopt similar practices. After three years of drought, over-consumption of water and the natural gas industry’s heavy water demands, 30 communities in Texas could run out of water completely by the end of this year. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., could soon be required to reduce the amount of water they release to southwestern states, and Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico is at its lowest water level in four decades after three years of extreme drought. These drier-than-usual conditions have made one expert declare the “era of the lawn in the West” to be over.