SUN FILE PHOTO
Thursday, April 8, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has offered an idea worth considering in asking Nevada lawmakers to require removal of ornamental grass in order to conserve the state’s water supply.
It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that such ideas need to be discussed.
As envisioned by the SNWA, the removal requirement would cover all “unused turf,” which is defined as grass which is walked on only when it’s being mowed. Grass used for recreation — think parks, school playgrounds, golf courses and such — would be protected.
The proposal may sound extreme, but what’s really extreme is the drought we’re experiencing and the pressure it’s putting on our water resources. In a year that is looking abnormally dry even by recent standards, it’s imperative for Las Vegas to start considering even more water restrictions than we already have in place.
Southern Nevada has long been a leader on conservation, as we showed most dramatically with our early adoption of turf removal incentives. According to the SNWA, nearly 200 million square feet of grass lawns have been converted to water-efficient landscaping under the incentive program, which has saved billions of gallons of water.
But the water authority estimates that there are upwards of 217 million more square feet of purely ornamental grass in the valley, which is sucking up — brace yourself — 12 billion gallons of water per year.
Is a mandatory ban the best way to address all that grass? Maybe or maybe not — perhaps the incentives can be increased again, like they were in 2018. But there’s no question that this is a discussion worth having immediately.
The outlook for our water supply is distressingly bleak throughout the Southwest. Forecasters say snowfall in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada was far below average this year, as was rainfall through much of region last year. The combination of paltry snowmelt and dry ground that will soak up water like a sponge means reduced flow into rivers and reservoirs.
Officials project the flow into Lake Powell, upstream from Lake Mead on the Colorado River, to be just 45% of the long-term average. That’s more bad news for Lake Mead, which is now at a mere 40% of its capacity and is expected to reach a level this year when an additional round of mandatory reductions in water allotments is triggered.
All around us, people are sounding alarms about the water supply. In New Mexico, the largest reservoir is at less than 11% capacity and farmers are likely to face a shortened irrigation season with tiny allotments of water. In Arizona, the looming reductions from the state’s Lake Mead water allotment will cut the major water authority’s supply by nearly a third. In California, where the state’s largest 154 reservoirs are at 50% of overall capacity, officials are warning of water shortages in coming months.
The encouraging news for Nevada is that our conservation efforts in recent decades have allowed us to absorb the expected reductions from Lake Mead. In essence, we’ve saved enough water over the years that we can contribute our portion of the reductions from our unused allotment.
But the bad news is that it doesn’t look like the drought is going to break anytime soon. In fact, climate change may be intensifying it by disrupting normal weather patterns and driving up temperatures in Southern Nevada and elsewhere.
In other words, this is a long-term problem that is going to require a full range of solutions.
Among them is what we should about unused grass. Yes, it’s gorgeous to look at, especially on a dry and hot desert day. But is keeping it alive worth further depleting our water supply and putting our city’s vitality at risk?
Keep in mind, the proposed restrictions wouldn’t touch grassy areas in parks, school playgrounds, at golf courses, etc. Las Vegans wouldn’t have to do away with grass entirely, just the turf that’s doing nothing but drinking water and providing scenery.
It may be difficult for newcomers to believe, but grass lawns were common in Las Vegas through the 20th century. But times changed, and our community changed with them by converting many of those lawns to xerisphere landscaping and adapting irrigation schedules that further saved water.
It was the right thing to do then. And as times keep changing, considering a ban on ornamental turf is the right thing to do now.