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Drought-Stricken Southwest Tears Up Lawns to Save Water

Much of the western United States is still experiencing severe to exceptional drought, and some communities have been for years. Some cities in the Southwest are making changes to their landscape to help reduce water waste.

Cities across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada are encouraging residents to replace their grass lawns and spray irrigation systems with native plants, rocks or drip irrigation systems.

Toby Bickmore, conservation services administrator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), explained that they began an in-depth study of several hundred properties in the valley with turf yards in the late 1990s to see the kind of water usage they required. A few years later, they researched another area of the state and received similar results: Every square foot of grass that was removed, about 55 gallons of water could be saved each year.

In Nevada, new building codes designed in 2005 restrict turf placement; none in the front yards of new construction and limited amounts of grass allowed in backyards. For structures built before the new code, residents were given the option to receive a rebate for every square foot of grass they removed.

"There have been millions of square feet rebated since we began the program in 2000," Bickmore said. "From all different types of properties: single-family homes, multi-family homes, commercial residences, even golf courses."

The SNWA rebates customers $1.50 for each square foot of grass they remove and replace with natural desert landscaping. After 5,000 square feet, the rebate reduces to a dollar per square foot.

Bickmore said that their estimates put 165 million square feet of turf rebated to date, with a savings of about 9 billion gallons of water are being saved every year.

Along with rebated lawns that are replaced, SNWA also encourages homes to switch from spray irrigation systems to drip irrigation systems.

"It's the difference between using gallons of water per hour instead of per minute," Bickmore said.

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SoCal Water$mart has adopted a similar program for Southern California residents, starting rebates at 30 cents per removed square foot of grass. They specify that soil must have 2 to 3 inches of covering to prevent erosion, and encourage property owners to use a "California Friendly®" garden in place of the turf, which includes drought-tolerate and native plants.

Water shortages are often a problem for Southern California. The Association of California Water Agencies state, "Three years of drought coupled with environmental restrictions on pumping in the Delta have created some of the worst water shortages" in recent memory.

There is some concern that turf replacement has some negative consequences, however. Moisture-rich grass takes sun energy for growth and evaporation. With dark stones in place of the turf, urban areas may be more susceptible to the heat island effect, which is when cities remain 10 to 12 degrees warmer at night than their rural neighbors due to more buildings, asphalt and other heat retainers.

"Grassy surfaces kept moist will be significantly cooler on a sunny day when compared to artificial turf, gravel and pavement," Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.