LAS VEGAS – A desert city built on the reputation of abundance and indulgence wants to become a model of restraint and conservation, with a nationwide policy that bans weed that nobody walks on.
Water officials in the Las Vegas area have been trying for two decades to get people to replace thirsty greens with desert plants and now they are calling on Nevada law to ban about 40% of the remaining lawn.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the subway area has nearly 21 square kilometers of “non-working turf” – grass that no one ever walks on or otherwise uses in street medians, housing developments, and office parks.
They say this ornamental grass needs four times as much water as drought tolerant landscapes like cacti and other succulents. They estimate that by ripping out the region, it can reduce annual water consumption by around 15% and save around 53 liters per person per day.
Las Vegas may be known for splashy displays like the Bellagio fountains on the neon-lit Strip, but officials say residents of bedroom communities and sprawling suburbs are taking protective measures, including aggressive surveillance of sprinklers and leaking irrigation systems.
“Public perception outside of Las Vegas is undoubtedly different, and has been for a long time, from community water ethics,” said Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
California put a temporary ban on ornamental grass irrigation during the last decade of drought, but no state or major city has attempted to permanently remove certain categories of grass.
“The scale is unprecedented in terms of a total ban on this non-functioning lawn,” said John Berggren, water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates.
The proposal is part of a turf war that has been going on since at least 2003 when the water board forbade developers from creating green front gardens in new sub-areas. It also offers older property owners the most generous discount policy in the area to demolish lawn – up to $ 3 per square foot.
These efforts are slowing down. The agency says the number of hectares converted under its discount program fell to six times less last year than in 2008. Meanwhile, water consumption in southern Nevada has increased by 9% since 2019.
Last year was one of the driest in the region’s history, with Las Vegas recording a record 240 days with no measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which makes up 90% of the water in southern Nevada, is questionable.
The waterway supplies Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Mexico. As drought and climate change diminish what the river offers, the amount allocated to Arizona, California, and Nevada is expected to continue to decrease.
Justin Jones, a Clark County commissioner who serves on the board of directors of the Water Authority, doesn’t believe tearing up ornamental lawns will change people’s lives.
“To be clear, we don’t come after the average homeowner’s back yard,” he said. But grass in the middle of a park where nobody goes: “That’s stupid.”
“The only people who have ever stepped on grass in the middle of a network of roads are people who cut the grass,” said Jones.
The agency has different regulations for shipyards and public parks. Based on satellite imagery, the ban on ornamental grass is believed to primarily affect public areas maintained by homeowners associations and commercial property owners.
Jones said the proposal created resistance in some master-planned communities, but water officials say years of drought awareness campaigns and measures like the discounts have created a cultural shift.
Southern Nevada Homebuilders’ Association lobbyist Matt Walker said consumer preferences have reached the point where potential buyers from wetter areas are not being shut off from neighborhoods with parks but no grass.
Conservation saves water, reduces per capita consumption and strengthens builders’ arguments that the desert can accommodate more growth, Walker said. “And the benefits are the ability to do what we do, which is to build houses.”
“We have really reached a level of comfort where buyers are very willing to follow responsible development practices when it comes to water use,” he added.
Other desert cities are not so sure. Salt Lake City has an ordinance that requires a certain amount of garden and medium greenery. Phoenix, where some neighborhoods remain flooded by flood irrigation, has never offered discounts on grass removal.
Water officials elsewhere are reluctant to compare their policies with southern Nevada. Especially in cities where water consumption per person is high, there is no single approach to a drier future.
In Las Vegas, for example, toilets, showers and dishwashers are mostly ignored as the water authority is able to treat and recycle wastewater indoors and through a natural wash into Lake Mead – the Colorado River reservoir behind the Hoover Dam allow. It is filtered again for reuse.
Draconian anti-weed policy might not work in downtown Phoenix, said Cynthia Campbell, a water resources advisor in the country’s fifth largest city. Trees and grass dull the public health threats from “urban heat islands” – areas without green landscaping to offset heat from evaporative cooling.
Regional water suppliers know that future consumption must be reduced, but fear that the preparation and awareness could backfire if the community does not buy.
“There comes a point where people’s demands get tighter,” Campbell said. “They’ll say,” This is the point I can’t go back. “For some people it’s a pool. For some people it’s grass.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority isn’t sure if the idea of banning weed will spread to other cities. But Pellegrino, the chief of water resources, said other places need to make changes.
“Especially any community that depends on water from the Colorado River.”
Metz reported from Carson City, Nevada and is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that lets journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.