The gas-powered sod cutter roars to life. A grid of rectangles soon appears. Then, like a spatula under a sheet cake, the grass is separated from its root system, lifted, and carried away for disposal. The removal of lush green grass is becoming commonplace these days in Las Vegas, Nevada, as it is now illegal to grow even small lawns for aesthetic use.
There just isn’t enough water any longer to irrigate them.
The US lawn started out as a mirror to the English manor house, with all its grandeur and wealth and power. Lawns represented the transition from an agricultural to industrial society, as, without the need to use land for crops, US yards became a symbol of stability and control.
People came to associate belonging and community through sometimes maniacally immaculate lawns.
Ironically, that ideal of lawns as status has become law in many communities — you must plant grass in front of your home, or you’ll face code violations. Suburban environments are best, according to this perspective, if they look the same, all across the country. Your front lawn should be neat, closely cropped, and richly verdant. There’s been little tolerance for deviations from a grass lawn into exotic forays like wildflowers, vegetables, or non-organic matter. 🙂
Many suburban desert homes in Las Vegas and other southwestern regions have front yard lawns that more closely resemble a 4-season suburb than one with the desert just out of sight. Instead of plantings that thrive in the area’s heavy, silty, and salty soil, lawns in these places are a monoculture that fail native animals and plants, as lawns generally offer no water sources or food sustenance. The fertilizer and chemicals applied to lawns often wash off and end up as water pollutants. Fertilizer can lead to algae blooms in local ponds, while chemicals can harm fish and the animals that eat them.
Those issues aside, the problem that’s made lawns outlawed in Las Vegas and other desert communities is water. That is, lawns require inordinate amounts of water, and that water is quickly dissipating.
Nowadays, more and more lawns are seen as being strictly nonfunctional and stylistic. They’re becoming an anachronism, something our grandchildren will tell their grandchildren about as a misty memory.
The Problem With Watering Lawns — In Las Vegas & Elsewhere
Approximately 40 million US acres are planted as lawn, including residential and commercial properties and golf courses. More land in the US is devoted to lawns than irrigated crops like corn or wheat. 30-60% of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns, depending on the city. 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns annually. Yard waste, mostly grass clippings, makes up 20% of municipal solid waste collected, and much of it ends up in landfills. Lawns have less than 10% of the water absorbing capacity of natural woodlands, which contribute to suburban flooding.
Without irrigation, dry excessive heat interrupts the plant’s photosynthesis, and grass is unable to store carbohydrates. The stress from drought causes the grass to wilt, darken in color, and, eventually, die.
Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day.
Outlawing grass is is part of a larger environmental toolkit to conserve water in the Southwest. The Colorado River is the source of water for Nevada, 6 other US states, Native American tribes, and Mexico. Population surges, accompanied by over 2 decades of climate change-induced drought, have depleted that once seemingly endless water source.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, explains that the reduced amount of water flowing into the area, combined with the catastrophic forest fires that swept through the region last year, offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future. “Climate change is drying out the headwaters, and everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned,” Mueller advises.
For Southern Nevada, home to nearly 2.5 million people and visited by upward of 40 million tourists a year, the problem is particularly acute. The region depends on Lake Mead, the nearby reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado, for 90% of its drinking water.
Bathtub-type rings delineate how high Lake Mead’s water levels used to be.
Lake Mead & Slowly Lowering Levels
Ongoing drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have caused Lake Mead’s elevation to fall by more than 150 feet since 2000. If Lake Mead’s end-of-2022 elevation is at or below 1,075 feet, Lake Mead will operate in a shortage condition in the upcoming year. As of February, Lake Mead, which provides the dam water, was sitting at an elevation of 325 meters. The dam is expected to stop producing power at around 289.56 meters.
The regional water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), has been so concerned that it spent $1.5 billion over a decade building a much deeper intake and a new pumping station, so it can take water even as the level continues to drop. A low lake level pumping station allows Southern Nevada to access water supplies below Lake Mead’s dead pool elevation of 895 feet — the point at which no water can pass through Hoover Dam to generate power or meet downstream water demands in California, Arizona, or Mexico.
Completed in 2020, the low lake level pumping station started operating in April 2022 when the dramatic drop in the elevation of Lake Mead rendered one of the primary intake pumping station inoperable. The low lake level pumping station has the capacity to deliver up to 900 million gallons a day to its treatment facilities.
The cost to design and build the low lake level pumping station was $522 million. Development involved constructing a 26-foot-diameter access shaft more than 500 feet deep, then excavating a 12,500-square-foot underground cavern at its bottom. The cavern, known as a forebay, connects with 34 vertical shafts — each 500 feet deep and 6 feet in diameter — to accommodate the station’s submersible pumping units.
A Post-Lawn Era Begins
It’s the return of the native, species, that is. Desert-friendly landscaping in Las Vegas means that former lawns are becoming desert gardens dotted with plants like desert spoon and red yucca.
The Las Vegas community has had to decide which functional turf like athletic fields, cemeteries, and some parcels in housing developments based on size could stay and which needed to go. The law set a deadline of 2027 for the work to be completed.
The move to replace thirsty, sprinkler-fed grass with drought-tolerant, drip-irrigated plants can reduce water use by up to 70%, the water authority says. The authority estimates there are about 3,900 acres of grass to be removed, which could yield savings of up to 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, or about 10% of the region’s allocation from the Colorado.
The rate of climate change is dramatic, Bill McKibben of 350.org argues, and outpaces the speed at which humans — our governments, our economies, our habits, our mind-sets — seem able to adapt. We must eliminate the norm of prime US landscaping that focuses on maintaining a manicured green lawn.
Native trees, shrubs, ground cover, prairie or meadow patches, flower beds, and attractively mulched areas are better environmental choices for people and wildlife. Many golf courses around the US are assessing their environmental impact and opting for sustainable solutions. Landscapers are slowly transitioning to electric-powered small equipment. With the effects of the climate crisis hitting home, our habits are changing, albeit slowly.
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