Washington County has ditched a million square feet of grass in 1 year
How big is a million square feet of grass? As an 18-inch roll of sod, it would stretch from the St. George Temple to the Las Vegas Strip.
That is also how much grass the Washington County Water Conservancy District helped people ditch in the first year of its water efficient landscape rebate program. The district estimates those lawn conversions will conserve 45 million gallons of water per year going forward.
“Every three conversion projects that we see produce enough water savings to support two water efficient households,” district conservation manager Doug Bennett said. “That's really important in a fast-growing community like ours.”
The program reimburses up to $2 per square foot when residents and businesses replace thirsty yards with drought-tolerant plants, artificial turf or rocky desert landscaping.
Similar turf buyback programs have started up across Utah, but the idea seems to be catching on most quickly in Washington County. Although the county has less than 6% of the state’s population, Bennett said, it accounts for more than a quarter of all the grass replaced statewide over the past year.
“Even though we had a really abundant winter runoff this past year, I think there was a lot of pent-up demand,” Bennett said. “People were ready to make the change and they were looking for something to jump in and give them a little extra push.”
For this dry corner of the state, replacing ornamental grass is a critical part of the long-term plan to have enough water to sustain its growing population.
The district’s 20-year water plan is counting on conservation to provide roughly a quarter of the additional water the county will need as it grows. Unlike other means, such as expanding its wastewater recycling program or drilling new wells, conservation can be implemented immediately without new infrastructure.
“I just want to emphasize to people, we have to do this now because the other additional new water is not coming into the program for another 7 to 10 years.”
Conservation is also one of the more cost-effective ways the county can grow its water supply, Bennett said, and it offers other economic benefits, too. Because it incentivizes residents to start landscaping projects, he estimates it has pumped more than $4 million into the local economy. So far, he said, roughly 80% of people who got rebates hired a landscaper to handle some or all of the work.
Brad Crandall, owner of South Valley Landscaping in St. George, has seen more and more of his customers take advantage of the rebate. He welcomes the change.
“I actually think it's been really helpful from our perspective. Like, a lot of people who were on the fence have decided to pull the trigger,” he said.
It takes a little extra work to make sure the projects meet the conservancy district’s qualifications for getting the rebate, he said, but it’s still relatively simple to check off those extra boxes.
The biggest trend he’s seen has been artificial turf. Many customers, he said, have thought about it for years but now see the rebate as a reason to make the jump.
“It used to be like half-and-half, people wanting turf versus wanting grass,” Crandall said. “Now it's a lot more like, I can't even remember the last time we installed grass.”
There can be challenges to being an early adopter, though.
Bennett with the conservancy district said he’s heard from people who are worried about what their neighbors might think if they are the first house on the block to ditch grass and do something different with their landscape. The more people that break that barrier, he said, the easier it’ll be for more neighbors to follow.
“As soon as somebody does it, it becomes a contagion,” he said. “I think that's going to be the second wave.”
That makes Bennett confident the district can double the results from its first year and convert two million square feet of grass in 2024.
He knows it’s possible. He helped build a similar program in Las Vegas, where residents have replaced more than 200 million square feet of grass in the past two decades.
With another 700-plus applicants in the pipeline, he said, the program already has a big head start over where it began. And as more people in southwest Utah change the way they think about their landscape, his pitch for leaving grass behind gets a little bit easier.
“Think about all the resources that you put into your lawn and ask yourself, ‘What does it give me back?’ If you're questioning whether you're coming out ahead on that, you probably have a lazy lawn.”