Las Vegas dramatically cut water use by targeting grass

Neighborhoods all over southern Nevada have been ripping up grass for cash and replacing it with rocks, artificial turf and desert plants.

Las Vegas dramatically cut water use by targeting grass
John Locher / AP

Water conservation experts say Las Vegas has been cutting water usage the past two decades by targeting grass. They've been replacing it with rocks, desert plants and artificial turf — saving billions of gallons of water.

Southern Nevada Water Authority's Bronson Mack says 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado River.

"Looking at Lake Mead, it's really evident just how much the lake has declined over the past 20 years with the white bathtub ring that you can see along the shoreline," Mack said. "And if we don't all adapt and reduce our water demands collectively, we're going to end up in a situation where demand is going to exceed supply."

Hydrologist David Kreamer at the University of Nevada Las Vegas says Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River, is only about 100 feet above what is called "dead pool" status.

"If the lake goes down to a dead pool level, about 950 feet above sea level, no more water can go through Hoover Dam and go downstream to California, to the crops and the fields that are located there. And that would be a pretty tremendous impact, not only for the Southwest, but for the entire United States," Kreamer said. 

"This used to be all grass all throughout here," said Kam Brian, CEO of Par 3 Landscape.

Neighborhoods all over Southern Nevada have been ripping up grass for cash and replacing it with rocks, artificial turf and desert plants.

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"Nevada passed a law about a year and a half ago that requires all commercial, and that would include homeowners associations, to remove all grass. That is what they call nonfunctional, so if you can't play on it," Brian said. 

Southern Nevada Water Authority says it pays property owners $3 a square foot to replace that grass with water efficient landscaping.

"We have removed more than 200 million square feet of grass and collectively saved more than 170 billion gallons of water simply by taking out grass that nobody is using," Mack said. 

It's part of a series of incentive programs Bronson says the Las Vegas area implemented in the late 90s out of necessity.

"Providing those financial incentives definitely has been a key to our conservation success," Mack said. 

Now the rest of the Southwest is looking to Southern Nevada as a national model in conservation efforts.

"Just recently, 30 cities throughout the Colorado River Basin in nearly every state of the Colorado River Basin signed on to a conservation memorandum of understanding, all agreeing to implement best practices when it comes to water conservation," Mack said. 

Mack says water conservation isn't a one size fits all, but collaboration between communities will help as we navigate the future of limited water supply.