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Thinking about getting rid of your lawn? Utah will pay you to do it

Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders gathered on May 1, 2023, at the Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan, to announce a new water-efficient landscaping program to help Utahns pay to replace grass with less thirsty alternatives.
Saige Miller
/
KUER
Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders gathered on May 1, 2023, at the Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan, to announce a new water-efficient landscaping program to help Utahns pay to replace grass with less thirsty alternatives.

Utah wants to help landowners pay to replace their lawns with something less water-intensive than traditional turf, like native plants or shrubs. It’s made possible through the water-efficient landscaping program passed during the 2023 Utah Legislative Session.

Even in the midst of a record-breaking snowpack year, the water flowing down the mountains and into Utah’s rivers and reservoirs isn’t enough to lift the state out of the historic drought. Gov. Spencer Cox said the turf-buyback program is a positive step toward conserving the valuable resource.

“Converting the grass in your park strip to water-efficient landscaping can save 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of water each year,” he said. “It also reduces maintenance, increases curb appeal, beautifying our neighborhoods, and less mowing is better for our air quality.”

The additional benefit for Wasatch Front homeowners is that the extra water savings will eventually make their way to the drying Great Salt Lake, according to Joel Ferry, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Through the program, the state, in partnership with local water districts, will cover up to $3 per square foot if landowners decide to participate. While that may not seem like a lot of money, Rick Maloy, water conservation manager at the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said it can cover the majority of the cost in some cases.

“Most people are able to convert their turf for under $5 a square foot if they're doing it themselves. Obviously, it's a little bit more expensive if they're hiring a contractor to do that,” he said.

Maloy added it’s not a “turf-removal program, it’s a turf-replacement,” meaning landowners must use the funds to tear out the grass and replant something else. There can’t just be dirt.

There’s another catch, too. People can only access this rebate if they live in cities that have adopted water-wise landscaping ordinances for new construction, like St. George, Salt Lake City and Bountiful. Cox said that was on purpose.

“We want to reward those cities that are being proactive and making sure that new development that 10 years from now, we're not going into a whole bunch of new homes and paying them to take their turf out when they could have done it to begin with,” he said.

Ferry said fewer than half of Utah’s cities have an ordinance in place requiring new developments to install water-wise landscaping. He hopes the program motivates cities to adopt similar policies.

Washington County enacted the state’s most restrictive landscape water conservation ordinance. Major population centers, like St. George, have outright banned the use of “nonfunctional grass” on all new commercial, industrial and institutional developments. In new home developments, grass can only cover 8% of the lot.

“This ordinance wasn't easy, but it was the right thing to do,” said Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli. “It's critical that we manage our most precious resource, which is water.”

Zach Renstrom, the general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said more than 1,000 people in the district have applied since the program rolled out at the beginning of the year.

Democratic state Rep. Doug Owens sponsored the water-efficient landscaping program bill. He was able to secure the $8 million in funding, with $3 million of it recurring every year. He anticipates the money will run out by the end of 2023, and believes it deserves more funding.

“I think we need $10 to $12 million a year ongoing,” he said. “And I'll be asking for that next year.”

Corrected: May 2, 2023 at 3:43 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Democratic state Rep. Doug Owens as a Republican.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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