Droughts, Lawns and Our Water Supply

Xeriscaping and other outdoor water conservation efforts are starting to spread to unlikely regions.
by | August 27, 2012

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

This summer, more than half the continental United States sweltered through 100-degree temperatures and the most searing drought since the 1950s. Even Florida, which historically averages 53 inches of rain a year (for comparison, the U.S. averages 37 inches), was parched. That was until Tropical Storm Debby pounded the state in June with relentless rain for four days. The drenching gave local governments in the state a chance to lift emergency orders that had limited homeowners to watering their lawns just one day a week.

The move was a relief to residents who'd watched carefully tended lawns brown. But some officials worry that the change also undercut an unwelcome message they've been delivering to Sunshine State landowners: This summer's dearth of rain may have ended, but a growing population and uncertain rainfall jeopardizes Florida's ability to ensure enough sustainable water resources in future years to keep so many grassy yards, parks and golf courses a lush and pleasing green.

After all, Florida had just come out of a five-year-long drought that lasted until 2010. In hotter climates, more than half of an average household's water is sprayed outdoors. Developers who built much of Florida surrounded new homes with landscaping familiar to northern immigrants. Those subdivisions still enforce deed restrictions that require manicured lawns, and homeowner associations pressure neighbors to keep up appearances. So when the drought started in 2005, local officials took an unpopular step when they began regulating how often homeowners could open outdoor watering taps.

However, this "water-rich" state that loves its lawns was the first to enact a statewide xeriscaping law, which requires its departments of Management Services and Transportation to use landscape designs that minimize water use on all new public properties and bars homeowner's associations from prohibiting yards with drought-tolerant plants. All local governments must also consider requiring the use of xeriscape and offering incentives to install xeriscaping.

In central Florida, Orlando rebates $300 in utility connection fees for new homes that meet water conservation standards for indoor fixtures and outdoor landscaping. North of Tampa, rural Hernando County has imposed an emergency 50 percent surcharge on high-volume water consumption. The county's landscaping ordinance now prohibits planting grass to cover more than half of any new home's yard, and, for now, Hernando County is keeping its once-a-week watering rule in effect.

But the 16-county Southwest Florida Water Management District went back to a permanent twice-a-week watering schedule. Xeriscaping advocates fear that reprieve only reinforces unrealistic hopes that from now on Florida's rainfall will remain plentiful. "People really like their grass," says Doris Heitzmann, a Pinellas County extension service horticulturist. "[But] in the long run, we're in drought. There's no way around that."

For arid Western states, the necessity of adapting to permanent drought is undeniable. Las Vegas, for instance, gets four and a half inches of rain annually, roughly a fifth of Tampa Bay's rain. Residents can drive 30 miles to see for themselves how far the water level has dropped in Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir that supplies the region's water from Rocky Mountain runoff. With the desert so dry year round, Las Vegas and its suburbs use about 70 percent of their water for maintaining lawns and other outdoor spaces. To stretch out its supply, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has cracked down in the last decade vigorously on wasteful landscaping.

Las Vegas water supply utilities have adopted tiered rates that quadruple charges for consumption that surpasses what a typical household uses indoors every month. The authority also levies surcharges on golf courses that exceed tight water budgets and outlaws planting turf around new commercial buildings. Since 2003, grass lawns have been forbidden in the front yards of new homes, and turf is restricted to 50 percent of backyard landscaping.

Southern Nevada has gone one step further: The authority pays homeowners a $1.50 rebate for every square foot of a conventional lawn that they dig up and replace with desert landscaping. In the last dozen years, the incentive has paid landowners nearly $180 million to replace 158 million square feet of turf, saving Las Vegas nearly 9 billion gallons of water a year. Golf clubs alone are saving 2 billion gallons a year after reconfiguring fairways to remove more than 900 acres of grass. In 2008, when Las Vegas real estate was booming, the authority paid more than $40 million in rebates, tapping revenues from hook-up fees it charges to connect newly built homes to water mains.

In effect, says Doug Bennett, the authority's conservation director, "new owners are paying existing residents to make water available to them." The fees dried up when the Las Vegas housing boom crashed, but the agency this year has come up with $9 million from other sources to keep paying rebates.

Albuquerque, N.M., and several small California cities have adopted similar landscape conversion incentives. Even in more humid regions, climate change could make rainfall less dependable. So other growing communities will likely need to compete to purchase water from farmers or other landowners to secure sustainable resources. As an alternative, cities could follow the Las Vegas model by adopting green building codes that require xeriscaping yards with native vegetation. "Without the drought, it would have been more difficult to get these policies in place," Bennett says. "In our situation, it's a lot better than the cost of buying new water supplies."


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