The fight for water: Can the mighty Mississippi save the West?

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

In 1999, the water district that serves two-thirds of the state's population began paying people to pull up lawns in favor of water-smart landscaping. To date, the district has spent nearly $178 million to replace 159 million square feet of turf, according to district spokesman J.C. Davis, saving 8.7 trillion gallons of water.

Other desert water districts like the Washington County Water Conservancy District in St. George have implemented turf-replacement programs. Similar programs are in place in California, but many Utah cities have yet to encourage that practice and in fact impede it, according to some critics.

"We've had people tell us they've been fined for ripping out their grass," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

In contrast, among the water-saving proposals submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation are complete prohibitions on having lawns in the first place. Las Vegas has already instituted that ban, prohibiting lawn in front yards.

One submission includes tearing up turf in both the front and back of homes, eliminating private swimming pools and limiting landscaping to vegetation that naturally grows in that climate.

Draconian approaches like that are disturbing from a philosophical and practical standpoint to some water managers.

Washington County's Ron Thompson said if all the grass and trees were removed in St. George, it would save 30,000 acre-feet of water per year and the result would be an ugly, barren heat island.

Both Thompson and Dennis Strong, director of Utah's Division of Water Resources, said how a community looks should be a community choice and that of its political leaders.

"I would hate to see us get into the situation where water rates are so expensive that only the people who have a lot of money can have grass and trees," Strong said.

Costly water bills

Dave Trueman, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's resources management division, concedes there may come a time when a homeowner's water bill is on par with utilities like natural gas or electricity, which will drive consumers to take larger strides in conservation.

"The value of water is changing quickly," he said. "As the value of water goes up, it will  drive people to be more conscientious and we will slide toward more efficient landscapes."

For Frankel, that type of pricing for water rates would be a welcome change in Utah, where he said water is priced artificially low because it is subsidized through property and sales tax, which doesn't reward conservation.

Frankel's group offers tips for turf removal through a program called "Rip Your Strip," but it depends on people taking the initiative.

Trueman, for example, noted that he's taking out a small section of lawn at his home that he never really sees, and pondered aloud that maybe in 100 years, "the Salt Lake Valley looks like Tucson. That may be far, far in the future."

If warming temperatures and decreased water availability do give the Wasatch Front a makeover, Trueman said that may impact population increases.

"Maybe that will slow our growth in the future, as water becomes more difficult for Utah," he said. "The amount of water available to us from Mother Nature is not increasing and we have pretty much harnessed that supply."

Meanwhile, growth projections compiled by the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget prior to the recession shows the Wasatch Front population increasing by more than a third by 2030. It is even more drastic for the southwest area of the state like Kane, Iron and Washington counties, where the population is expected to more than double.

While those projections are expected to be downgraded with new numbers due out later this year, proponents who favor projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline still insist the inevitable growth justifies building water projects to serve the future.

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