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Turf-rebate program sees success

There was a time when defiant Las Vegas residents and developers seemed determined to carpet over the entire desert with lush, green grass.

In 1999, the Southern Nevada Water Authority set out to change that attitude with a new program that paid people to rip out their lawns.

Since then, valley homes and businesses have removed enough turf to cover more than 2,600 regulation football fields and saved enough water to fill more than 63,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And that's just one way of visualizing the latest milestone for the authority's Water Smart Landscapes program, a conservation effort unique among Southwestern cities that recently surpassed 150 million square feet of grass converted to desert landscaping.

Authority Conservation Manager Doug Bennett likes to imagine it as a strip of sod 18 inches wide and long enough to wrap three quarters of the way around the globe.

"Another 50 million square feet and we'll circle the Earth," Bennett said.

The cash-for-grass program pays up to $1.50 per square foot to qualifying businesses and residents who convert lawns to water-efficient landscapes.

With numerous conversion projects going on at once, it's hard to know for sure exactly when and where the milestone was reached. Bennett said the golf course at Spanish Trail Country Club is a pretty safe bet.

When told that the 150 million-square-foot mark might have been reached at his golf course, Spanish Trail General Manager Freddie Rohani chuckled and said, "Does that mean that for the next year we don't get a water bill?"

The private, 27-hole course in one of the valley's wealthiest neighborhoods has taken out more than 1 million square feet of turf through a series of large landscape conversions over the past five years.

Rohani said that when the course was built 25 years ago, "it was lush green and water wasn't a problem."

"Nobody would have dreamed of turf conversion," he said. "Time goes by, and we have to change accordingly."

Before the landscaping changes, the country club paid more than $1 million a year for water, including summer bills that regularly topped $160,000 a month.

Last year, the course's water bills totaled about $925,000, a savings of roughly 10 percent, Rohani said.

Rather than rip out all its extra turf at once, the golf course is spreading its conversions out from year to year to take full advantage of the rebate program, which caps payments to single properties at $300,000 annually.

Rohani said he expects the country club to keep taking out select areas of grass, as long as the water authority keeps offering rebates and the conversions do not negatively impact the playable area.

Bennett said it's fitting that the milestone was probably reached at Spanish Trail Country Club, since golf courses account for about 20 percent of all the turf that has been removed under the program so far.

It's also symbolic for another reason. "For an old Vegas, big money area like that to be making the change" shows the progress the authority has made in changing the community's attitude toward appropriate water use in the desert, Bennett said.

As water authority spokesman J.C. Davis put it, "Even the elite can pitch in for conservation."

Consider the most opulent address in Spanish Trail, if not all of Nevada.

At the southwest corner of the neighbor­hood is a 16-acre compound with a mansion and five smaller homes totaling 29 bedrooms, 41 bathrooms and almost 109,000 square feet.

Since it was built in 1997 for the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, the estate has consumed more water than any other residence in the valley, but a major landscape conversion did help the property cut its use by almost 4.5 million gallons from 2008 to 2009.

The average home in the Las Vegas Valley goes through about 163,000 gallons of water annually, with roughly 60 percent of that use occurring outside in the yard.

The turf-rebate program is credited with saving 41.4 billion gallons of water so far.

More than 43,300 separate landscape conversions have been completed under the program, including 39,955 at homes and 4,411 at commercial properties.

Conversions at businesses account for 98.9 million of the 150.9 million square feet of grass converted so far. The other 52.1 million square feet has come from residences.

The water authority has paid out more than $167.8 million in turf rebates since 1999, $101.5 million of it to commercial properties and $66.3 million to home­owners.

And if money isn't enough to persuade people to participate, the authority has a Yard of the Month competition, recognizing the best looking and most functional local landscapes featuring water-efficient plants, trees and shrubs.

The prize amounts to bragging rights: a "Yard of the Month" sign the winners can put up in front of their homes.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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