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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

‘Turf takes water’ and in Utah’s arid Washington County that’s starting to be a problem

Utah lawn water sprinkler
Brian Albers
A sprinkler waters a Utah lawn, Aug. 16, 2021.

Utah cities are preparing for a future with less water, and leaders in Washington County are passing strict conservation ordinances to extend its water supply.

Civic leaders are setting water efficiency standards on new development from indoor appliances to car washes. The big talk, though, is about limiting how much lawn a new home can have.

The southwest corner of Utah is hot and dry. The population is expected to more than double in the next 40 years, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Those factors, along with a historic megadrought, have the region’s leaders worried about its most important resource.

“When you have too much water, you have a lot of problems,” said Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist last September after the commission decided to hold off on approving higher density zoning for a town. “When you have too little water, you only have one problem.”

Most of the county relies on water from the Virgin River, which county water officials call unreliable. So, for the past few decades, the Washington County Water Conservancy District has been trying to get a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to the county. The future of that controversial project is up in the air, as Colorado River Basin states scramble to keep the reservoir above critical levels.

St. George housing construction, April 18, 2022
Lexi Peery
Homes under construction in south St. George, April 18, 2022. The region is seeing a record demand for housing.

Scott Taylor, water services manager for St. George, said to sustain the huge growth they’re experiencing, they have to do something, collectively.

“We have a limited supply of water,” he said. “And we're getting close to the end of that supply. Without other sources of water coming online in the next few years, we're going to be out of water. So anything we can do now to conserve water stretches that end date a little bit longer.”

Nearly 75% of the city’s culinary water supply goes to residential use, and Taylor said about half of that is used outdoors.

Water conservation ordinances are slowly spreading throughout the county, and every city is approaching it a little differently — especially when it comes to grass. In St. George’s neighboring city of more than 7,500 people, Santa Clara, new homeowners can only have lawn cover just 8% of their lot.

St. George is looking at setting a cap on how much square footage of turf there is, Taylor said. Grassy park strips smaller than 8 feet on one side and slopes with more than 15% grade will be prohibited, since they’re rarely used. Taylor thinks the city council will pass the ordinance, which includes other water efficiency standards, in the next month or so.

“Turf takes water,” he said. “If we can limit the amount of turf that people are able to have, then that's going to, in theory, save water.”

The focus on new developments doesn’t address all the water that’s already being used, said Ed Andrechak, water program manager at Conserve Southwest Utah, a local environmental group.

“The base of residential housing won’t be affected,” he said. “I've heard people say… well, legally, they're all grandfathered in. And my answer to that is, well, if we're close to a tap out of water, are we going to go back and … start tearing out lawns? We sure should and sure should have.”

Despite the difficulty in asking long-time residents to make radical changes to their yards, Taylor believes that in the future, landscapes in the city will start to change. He expects there will be financial incentives for people to update existing landscapes.

Andrechak is glad to see cities and the county taking steps to conserve water, even if they’re years behind other desert municipalities. More recently, the Nevada state Legislature is now requiring all non-functional grass to be ripped out.

“The bad news is we're 22 years into a drought,” he said. “The good news is we're 22 years into a drought. And frankly, if there was ever a time for people to feel it, they will.”

But are lawns “all bad, all the time?”

With new homes or existing homes, limiting the amount of functional lawn isn’t necessarily the best approach, said Kelly Kopp, a turfgrass specialist at Utah State University.

Kopp is focused on water-efficient landscaping and said different kinds of grass have different needs. Some desert-adapted ones hardly even need water at all. That means there are other options for outdoor water conservation the county could be taking.

“They seem to be looking for easy approaches to water conservation and this isn't just Utah specific, by the way,” Kopp said. “This is a national thing. … It's something that the water industry has latched onto because it's easy. They can just say, OK, all grass, all bad, all the time, and that's easy. But it's just not that simple. I wish it were.”

She thinks the county would have more success with water budgeting — setting limits to how much people can use. Or she said it would be better to educate people more on how much water grasses actually need, which is probably way less than you think.

“People are irrigating about twice as much as they need to,” Kopp said. “If everybody stopped that, just think of the water. I mean, it would be amazing and it would certainly help us get through the situation that we find ourselves in today.”

Desert Color Localscape Certified Landscape
Lexi Peery
Desert Color is a large master-planned community at the south end of St. George. Its landscapes are certified localscapes, or yards that are based on local vegetation and climate.

Taylor admits, there’s a big problem with overwatering and they’re working on education. But he said St. George is still pursuing lawn limits because at least if there’s less grass, there’s less to overwater.

He’s already hopeful because most of the new developments in St. George are more desert friendly. Desert Color, which could bring another 11,000 homes to the area, is “localscapes certified” by the state. That means the yards rely on minimal grass and more native plants. The city saw about 8% water savings last summer compared to the previous year, while also adding nearly 2,000 new water connections.

Kopp cautioned there are a lot of good things about grass too — though she said the move to limit non-functional lawn, like park strips or turf that’s only walked on when it’s mowed, is a good thing.

Grass helps keep areas around homes cooler, and she said it provides other benefits like carbon sequestration and oxygen production.

“I just don't want to see the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater,” Kopp said. “I want to maintain those positive functions that we get from our landscapes. … I don't want to see us be California, where we're losing our urban tree canopy, where we're having just horrible, ugly, awful landscapes … I just don't want to see us making those same mistakes.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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