Colorado River water agencies tear up grassy medians to fight climate change

A group of 30 agencies that supply water to homes and businesses in the western United States have pledged to pull lots of decorative grass to help keep water in the overused Colorado River.

The agreement signed Tuesday by water agencies in Southern California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City and elsewhere illustrates an accelerated shift in the American West away from the manicured grass that has long been a a totem of suburban life, having taken root along the streets, around the fountains and between the alleys of the office park.

The Grass Removal Pledge targets grass that people don’t work on, such as in front of shopping malls, in street medians, or at the entrance to neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean cities plan to tear up grass on golf courses, parks, or in backyards, though some may pay homeowners to voluntarily replace their lawns with more weather-resistant landscaping. Drought.

As well as reducing ornamental grass by 30%, the agencies say they will increase water efficiency, add more water recycling and consider actions such as changing the way people pay water to encourage savings.

“Recognizing that a clean and reliable water supply is essential for our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling in our service areas,” reads the note. on duty.

The agreement did not include details on how much water the agencies collectively pledged to save, but the cities account for about one-fifth of the Colorado River’s water use. The rest goes to agriculture.

“Cities — the 20% — can’t solve the math problem. But we can definitely help solve the problem,” said John Entsminger, CEO of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The pledges, light on details, could prompt agencies to offer payment to landowners to uproot grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscaping.

The 30% snatch pledge marks the first time the region’s water agencies have collectively committed to a numerical benchmark targeting a specific type of water use. It comes as states work to cut consumption to meet demands from federal officials who say cuts are needed to maintain river levels and protect public health, food systems and hydropower.

The letter adds additional signatories to an earlier agreement reached by five major water districts in August. Water agencies in Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Denver are among those that have signed on.

Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the city hopes to replace about 75 million square feet (7 million square meters) of non-functioning turf, but does not share how much water will conserve. He said the agency hopes to roll out programs by 2024.

Whatever the savings, the new commitments will result in conservation well below what is needed to keep the water flowing in the Colorado River and prevent its largest reservoirs from shrinking to dangerously low levels.

Phoenix wants its program up and running by the spring; this will be the first time the city has offered payment for people to pull grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resource management adviser. Even without a program, many people removed the weed anyway. In the 1970s, about 80% of homes had grass covering most of their property; today it’s 9%, but that doesn’t include sprawling suburbs outside the city limits, she said.

Like others, she pointed out that saving water in cities would not solve the river’s problems.

“There is no level of municipal conservation in the entire western United States that could offset the water that will be required to be ‘conserved,’ she said. But, “we give until it hurts, as much as possible.”

The letter does not include any commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of the allocated water in the seven states that depend on the river – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are each about a quarter full.

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton warned that states needed to drastically reduce their use, but amid wrangling over who would shoulder what burden, officials failed to heed her call. The office has since offered different levels of payment to water districts to reduce their use, such as leaving agricultural fields unplanted or asking city dwellers to use less at home.

Proposals for some of that money are due November 21.

Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to about half of California’s residents, in October urged cities and water agencies within its territory to ban the addition of any new decorative grass in business parks, public spaces and neighborhoods. Its board has also urged agencies to stop watering and consider removing already planted grass.

Southern Nevada has for decades used a mix of cash incentives and fines to discourage grass watering and limit working and non-working turf. The deal has little effect on the region because a state law passed last year requires 100% of non-functioning turf to be removed in the Las Vegas area by 2026.

Utah passed a statewide conservation program last year that included $5 million to encourage turf removal and targeted decorative grass on public property. Yet some municipalities maintain ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prohibit residents from replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping.

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Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif. AP writer Thomas Peipert contributed reporting from Denver.

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Teresa H. Sadler