As millions of newcomers have flocked to the Las Vegas Valley over the past 50 years, every level of government in the nation’s driest state has worked to ensure that water shortages don’t stop the growth.
Since 1999, southern Nevada has ripped out thousands of acres of turf from lawns, sports fields and roadway medians under the West’s most ambitious grass-removal program. These efforts helped halve the amount of water each resident consumed and freed up enough for Clark County to add nearly 1 million people.
Now, the valley is again looking to grass removal to continue growing without increasing its overall water use. In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed a first-of-its-kind law mandating the elimination of “nonfunctional turf,” defined as grass that is decorative and rarely used. The Southern Nevada Water Authority promised this would do away with 3,900 acres of grass (roughly 3,000 football fields) within six years.
But by analyzing the water authority’s own aerial imagery, ProPublica found that the agency grossly overestimated how much of that grass could be removed: That number could actually be as low as 1,100 acres. That error, combined with pushback to the ban — especially from homeowners associations looking to avoid turf removal costs and preserve their communities’ aesthetic — could leave the region short of the water savings it needs.
This comes at a precarious time. The Colorado River, which supplies 90% of the Las Vegas Valley’s water, has been hit by a megadrought, and Lake Mead has fallen to historic lows. The agriculture industry uses the vast majority of the dwindling river, but Las Vegas and other cities that also rely on the Colorado must scramble to find savings. Meanwhile, the federal government is mulling drastic cuts to their water supply.
As other Western states try to replicate southern Nevada’s water conservation success, the diminishing returns from its marquee program have experts questioning whether the effort will be enough to support continued growth in a hotter, drier future.
“Get rid of Denver, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, LA, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson — the whole nine yards — and you still would not reach the amount of water you need to save,” Colby Pellegrino, the water authority’s deputy general manager of resources, told ProPublica. “As a basin, the answer is not lying within the entire urban sector. There has to be participation from agriculture and industrial.”
Some HOAs already see the limits of this strategy. After years of minimizing the water used on landscaping, staff members at Sun City Anthem, a retirement community of more than 10,000 people in Henderson, say they’ve run out of nonfunctional turf to remove. All that’s left is a lawn they want to keep for events like movie nights.
“That was the end,” said Larry Fossan, the community’s facilities manager and landscape supervisor. “We can’t save any more water.”
As Fossan passed through a common area where elderly residents were socializing, a woman glanced up from a game of mahjong and asked suspiciously, “Are you taking more grass?”
Where’s the Turf?
Each year, southern Nevada is allotted 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, which SNWA supplements with about 47,000 acre-feet of groundwater from beneath the Las Vegas Valley. (An acre-foot is roughly enough water to supply two to three homes per year.) But impending cuts to allocations from the river could bring southern Nevada dangerously close to exceeding its supply.
Projections show by 2035 Clark County’s population will grow 27% to nearly 3 million people. Without cuts to water use, the larger population will require about 400,000 acre-feet a year — far more than it is entitled to use. To meet the demand, it must reduce future water use by more than 100,000 acre-feet.
The plan to get the savings relies in large part on reducing grass. It’s a strategy the water authority has leaned on for decades. Rather than just urging residents to take shorter showers or run only full loads of laundry, it has consistently looked for water savings outdoors. That’s because the agency already treats and recycles virtually all water used indoors. It sends that water back to Lake Mead, earning “return-flow credits,” which allow it to draw an equal amount from the reservoir.
But water applied to landscaping can’t be recouped. It either evaporates or soaks into the ground instead of returning to Lake Mead. So, in 1999, the water agency created a program to pay residents a one-time incentive to remove their lawns.
Later, the water authority and its members — Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and several water districts — restricted the size of lawns in new developments and increased financial incentives to rip out existing turf at homes and businesses, significantly reducing outdoor water use.
But once the easy-to-get grass was gone, the water savings dwindled.
“Some of these larger nonresidential users — everybody from HOAs to office parks — didn’t seem to be interested in taking advantage of the voluntary system,” Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Las Vegas Democrat, said.
So Watts jumped at the water authority’s idea for a legislative mandate to remove nonfunctional turf. Together, they sold the Nevada Legislature on the premise that such a ban could save nearly a quarter of the water needed to supply the expected population growth.