To conserve water, Las Vegas pushes for first-in-the-nation ban on ornamental grasson April 12, 2021 at 3:45 pm

LAS VEGAS — A desert city built on a reputation for excess and indulgence wants to become a model for restraint and water conservation with a first-in-the-nation policy banning grass that nobody walks on.

Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants. Now, they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates there are nearly eight square miles of “nonfunctional turf” in the Las Vegas metropolitan area — grass that no one ever walks on or otherwise uses . It can be found in street medians, housing developments and office parks.

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate, the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons per person per day.

Las Vegas might be known for splashy displays like the Bellagio fountains on the neon-lit Strip, but officials say residents of bedroom communities and sprawling suburbs embrace conservation measures.

“The public perception outside of Las Vegas is certainly much different — and has been for a long time — than the water conservation ethic within the community,” said Colby Pellegrino, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s water resources director.

California imposed a temporary ban on watering ornamental grass during the past decade’s drought. But no state or major city has tried to phase out certain categories of grass permanently.

“The scale of this is pretty unprecedented in terms of a full ban on this nonfunctional turf,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with the group Western Resource Advocates.

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot.

But those efforts are slowing. The agency says the number of acres converted under its rebate program fell last year to six times less than what it was in 2008. And water consumption in southern Nevada has increased 9% since 2019.

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history. Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall.

And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question. The waterway supplies Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Mexico. As drought and climate change cut into the amount of useable water the river provides, the amount allocated to Arizona, California and Nevada is projected to be cut further.

Justin Jones, a Clark County commissioner who serves on the water authority’s board, doesn’t think ripping out ornamental turf will mess with people’s lives.

“We are not coming after your average homeowner’s backyard,” Jones said.

But regarding grass in the middle of a parkway, where no one walks, he said: “That’s dumb. The only people that ever set foot on grass that’s in the middle of a roadway system are people cutting the grass.”

Sprinklers water grass near a street corner in Las Vegas' Summerlin neighborhood.
Sprinklers water grass near a street corner in Las Vegas’ Summerlin neighborhood.
Ken Ritter / AP

The agency has different regulations for yards and public parks. Based on satellite imaging, it says banning ornamental grass primarily would affect common areas maintained by homeowners associations and commercial property owners.

Jones said the proposal has drawn resistance in some master-planned communities, but water officials say years of drought-awareness campaigns and policies like the rebates have cultivated a cultural change.

Southern Nevada Homebuilders’ Association lobbyist Matt Walker said consumer preferences have reached a point that potential homebuyers from wetter regions aren’t turned off from neighborhoods that have parks but no ornamental grass. Conservation frees water, reduces per-capita consumption and strengthens builders’ arguments that the desert can accommodate more growth, Walker said.

Salt Lake City requires a certain amount of yard and median greenery. Phoenix, where some neighborhoods are lush from flood irrigation, has never offered grass-removal rebates.

The Las Vegas water-conservation efforts mostly ignore toilets, showers and dishwashers because the water authority treats and recycles indoor wastewater, letting it flow into Lake Mead — the Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam. That’s filtered again for reuse.

A draconian anti-grass policy might not work in downtown Phoenix, said Cynthia Campbell, water resources adviser for the nation’s fifth-largest city. Trees and grass blunt public health dangers of “urban heat islands,” she said.

Las Vegas water managers worry their efforts could backfire if the community doesn’t buy in.

“There comes a point when people’s demands start to harden,” Campbell said. “They’ll say, ‘This is the point of no return for me.’ For some people, it’s a pool. For some people, it’s grass.”

Lake Mead -- the reservoir on the drought-stricken Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam -- is the primary water source for Las Vegas, a desert city considering a first-in-the-nation policy to limit water use by banning grass that nobody walks on.
Lake Mead — the reservoir on the drought-stricken Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam — is the primary water source for Las Vegas, a desert city considering a first-in-the-nation policy to limit water use by banning grass that nobody walks on.
John Locher / AP

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