It’s past time to dig up every lawn

Las Vegas in a nutshell: A Hummer sporting a specialty license plate urging us to “Protect Lake Tahoe.”

When it comes to some of the big political questions — the environment, education, transportation among them — Las Vegas is a seriously confused place.

All of us here know that we live in one of the world’s driest climates. And surely most of us realize that conserving water is an increasingly important thing to do here. Yet many Southern Nevadans thumb their noses at the notion of reducing water use.

Las Vegas should be ashamed that it has the highest per-capita rate of urban water consumption in the West. We are just terrible at the one thing that we — better than anyone except maybe the Bedouins in the Sahara Desert — should be committed to doing.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District boasts, with some justification, that its turf-removal incentive program has eliminated vast swaths of water-guzzling lawns. Many businesses and homeowners (including this writer) have taken advantage of this program, which makes it very affordable to convert your yard from grass to xeriscape.

But the program is voluntary. If you like your lawn, you can keep it — and keep drenching it with gallons upon gallons of water.

Drive around Las Vegas and it doesn’t take long to notice the large numbers of businesses and homeowners that have no interest in eliminating turf and defiantly flout the rules about when and how much to water.

“I live in the very aptly named Green Valley, and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “I take national reporters out and show them acre after acre after acre of emerald-green eye candy. In August, I took out a Reuters reporter. It’s noon, it’s 110 degrees out and, in violation of the rules, there are irrigation systems going full blast. It’s so ridiculously easy to find examples of water waste all over the valley.”

I’ve noticed that wealthy homeowners seem to care the least about conserving water. Many weekday mornings, I drive through the upscale neighborhood near Rancho and Alta drives. Grass is the dominant landscape feature. One large house boasts a lush lawn almost the size of a football field. It looks like the kind of place where the Kennedy family would play a game of touch football. Of course, the Kennedys played their famous touch football games in Massachusetts, not the Mojave Desert.

Perhaps it’s purely an economic issue: Wealthy folks can afford to pay the higher water rates charged to heavy users. But I suspect there’s something more to it: a conscious decision that aesthetics trumps the community’s greater good.

Should local property owners — commercial and residential — be required to dig up their lawns? I think so. Water is a vital public resource in a growing desert city, and its allocation should not be left to the whims of the selfish, ignorant or defiant.

But clearly I am a voice in the wilderness on this issue. Have you heard any local official ever make such a suggestion? Me neither.

Rake points out a painful irony associated with local water conservation efforts, what he calls a “fiscal glitch.” When the Las Vegas Valley Water District enacted more stringent conservation measures a few years ago, people stopped using so much water. A good thing, right? Sure, but the side effect was that the water district’s revenues — based on water consumption — plummeted.

“The water district as a legal entity is running something like a $20 million deficit,” Rake says. “And as a public agency, they are required to balance their books. It’s a ridiculous situation.”

As a result, one has to wonder whether the water district really has its heart in expanding water conservation efforts. Under the current structure, conservation is bad for the agency’s bottom line.

But there’s more to the story. The water district’s sister agency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority — run by the same people — has a different agenda. Its primary mission is to find new water resources to feed the Las Vegas growth machine. The water authority is spending tens of millions on lobbyists and marketing campaigns to make sure it is allowed to proceed with plans to build a pipeline to pump groundwater from rural Nevada.

Regardless of what you think of the pipeline project, the fact that many millions of dollars are being allocated to the project instead of expanding conservation efforts in the valley is worthy of discussion.

So, will my idea of requiring property owners to dig up their lawns ever come to pass?

“I think everyone has to know that is coming sometime,” Rake says.

If so, it’s not likely to be a proactive measure. It will happen only when this growing community taps out its available resources, which could occur sooner than expected if the eight-year Western drought persists. At some point, we will be forced to react in severe ways, generating anger, conflict and hardships that could have been avoided if we had been more forward-looking.

For those unwilling to cross the line into forced lawn removal, other measures could be enacted. A new report from the Pacific Institute and Western Resource Advocates argues that Las Vegas could achieve 40 percent more conservation inside single-family homes and 30 percent more in hotel-casinos by installing water-efficient fixtures and appliances.

“Las Vegas has implemented only a small fraction of the various water-efficiency programs being used successfully throughout the western U.S.,” the report states. “This is one reason Las Vegas residents use significantly more water per person, both indoors and outdoors, than residents of Tucson, Albuquerque, Los Angeles and other arid and semi-arid U.S. cities.”

It’s obvious, I think, that the same type of financial incentives offered by the water district for turf removal could be offered for replacing indoor water fixtures.

Finally, the water district should increase the financial pinch for big water wasters. Clearly, the high-volume rates, although increased fairly recently, need to be a lot higher to persuade property owners to get with the program.

Our single-minded addiction to growth has crippled our ability to think clearly on many issues. Water conservation should be a no-brainer in a place like Las Vegas, yet somehow it’s gotten all gunked up in the competing priorities of casinos, developers, homeowners and political agencies.

And thus: a Hummer with a “Protect Lake Tahoe” license plate.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming in February, “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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