Cities in the western U.S. are to remove ornamental grasses amid drought

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of 30 agencies that supply water to homes and businesses in the western United States has pledged to clear lots of ornamental grasses to keep water in the overburdened Colorado River.

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

The grass removal pledge is aimed at grass that people don’t work on, such as in front of shopping malls, on roadsides or at the entrance to neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean cities plan to mow grass on golf courses, parks, or in backyards, though some may pay homeowners to voluntarily replace their lawns with more drought-resistant landscaping.

In addition to cutting 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, reliable water supply is critical to our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water use and increase reuse and recycling within our service areas,” the memo said.

The agreement didn’t include details about how much water the agencies collectively wanted to save, but cities account for about one-fifth of the Colorado River’s water use. The rest goes to agriculture.

“Cities — the 20% — can’t solve the math problem. But we can certainly help solve the problem,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The pledges, light on details, could prompt agencies to pay property owners to rip up grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscapes.

The commitment to remove 30% marks the first time water agencies across the region have jointly committed to a numerical benchmark focused on one specific type of water use. It comes as states scramble to cut 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 by five major water districts 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 7 million square feet (7 million square meters) of non-functional grass, but didn’t share how much water that would save. He said the agency hopes to roll out the programs by 2024.

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

Phoenix wants the program to be up and running in the spring; it will be the first time the city pays people to mow grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water management consultant. Many people have removed grass even without a program. 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.

She, like others, emphasized that water conservation by cities will not solve the river’s problems.

“There is no level of municipal conservation in all of the western United States that can compensate for the water that will be required to be conserved,” she said. But, “we give until it hurts, as much as we can.”

The letter contains no commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of allotted 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 each about a quarter full.

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Touton warned states to drastically cut their use, but amid bickering over who would shoulder what burden, officials heeded her call. The agency has since offered varying levels of payment to water districts to reduce their use, such as leaving fields unplanted or asking city residents to use less at home.

Proposals for a portion of that money must be submitted by November 21.

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

For decades, Southern Nevada has used a combination of monetary incentives and fines to discourage watering grass and restrict both functional and non-functional sod. The agreement has little effect on the area because a state law passed last year requires 100% of non-functional turf in the Las Vegas area to be snatched up by 2026.

Utah last year approved a conservation program that included $5 million to encourage sod removal and targeted ornamental grasses on public property. Still, some municipalities enforce ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prohibit 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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