UNLV cutting out grass to save water, tax dollars

Back in the early 1990s, when Tara Pike was a student at UNLV, she felt like she was annoying people when she pushed the university to get rid of its grass to save water. Few people seemed to care, she said. She pressed on anyway.

Twenty years later, Pike is UNLV’s Solid Waste and Recycling Manager. She’s the founder and driving force behind Rebel Recycling.

Part of her job is getting people to buy into a turf-reduction program that has ripped out a million square feet of grass from the 332-acre campus and replaced it with desert plants.

The effort has been successful. But it’s not over.

"I probably got, oh, about a million more," said Robert Lynn, the university’s facilities manager for landscaping and grounds. "At minimum."

That’s a million more square feet of grass to rip out. Lynn has been at UNLV since 1985. He said the turf-reduction program started the year after that, but it didn’t really get into gear until a few years ago, when the Southern Nevada Water Authority started paying more money to people and businesses who ripped out their lawns.

Its most successful year was 2009, he said, when he removed more than 200,000 square feet of grass. That was also the year that two projects on campus took first and second place in the SNWA’s Landscape Awards competition. The next year, Lynn was named the university’s employee of the year.

Watering the grass with above-ground sprinklers uses significantly more water than watering desert-friendly plants with an underground drip system, Lynn said.

He said the turf-reduction program is saving the university 55 million gallons of water a year. He figures that means he’s saving the taxpayers well more than $100,000 a year in water bills.

The evidence is all over campus.

What were once small, grassy areas between buildings are now landscaped areas with lots of different water-friendly plants.

The only grassy parts of the campus that won’t be converted to desert landscaping are the athletic fields and, maybe, the academic mall, a gathering spot for students near the student union.

But it costs money to do those projects. Lynn said the tough budget times right now have slowed down the turf-reduction efforts.

That’s why the university has entered a national contest sponsored by Rain Bird, the irrigation company. The contest will award money to winners in each category.

UNLV has entered the $10,000 category. Past winners include a botanical garden in Florida, a golf course in Kentucky and a garden in California.

The project UNLV entered — the only one from Nevada — would remove 25,000 more square feet of grass, saving another million gallons of water a year. The project would expand on an existing project called the Learning Garden, near the Carlson Education Building.

Anyone can go to the contest website and vote for their favorite projects. Winners will be announced in March. As of Friday afternoon, UNLV’s project was ranked 14th out of 25 projects.

Whether UNLV wins or not, the project will eventually get done. It’ll just depend on when the money is available.

Lynn said he knows there’s more work to do. It doesn’t make sense these days, with Lake Mead drying up, to keep watering grass in the desert.

"I can see almost all the grass on campus gone one day," he said.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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