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West Wages a New Sort of Turf Battle

Water Conservation Pushed as Desert Communities
Struggle With Growth

The Washington Post, May 16, 1999
Rene Sanchez

Officials in West Fear Worst if a Major Drought Strikes Colorado River


LAS VEGAS&emdash;Inspector Dave Hunt is back on his beat, roaming this strange desert city on an urgent mission. He is searching for anyone wasting water.

It is another hot, dry morning, and Hunt is wheeling his dusty truck into one of the many plush new residential communities rising up on the edge of town. He cruises past soaked green lawns that seem out of place in the scorched climate and sand-swept streets whose names sound like jokes: Breakwater Drive, Moonlight Bay, Gull's Landing. He eyes sprinklers, hoses and even drains near a man-made lake for hints of trouble, which is never hard to find.

"You want to know what we're up against?" Hunt, an investigator for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, asks as he spots a suspicious stream flowing alongside a curb. "When I confronted one guy a while back about the sprinkler he was using, he got so angry he poked me in the chest and he said, 'Man, with all these new rules, you people are trying to turn this place into a desert.' "

Such are the signs of a struggle, both comic and serious, unfolding across the desert West. From the outskirts of metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego, and across the flat, barren expanse of Nevada and Arizona, cities are going to new extremes to conserve water and are begging, even bribing, residents to start living with a profound new appreciation for the limits of natural resources.

It is an enormous undertaking, for few habits are as old and hard to break in this arid region than recklessly guzzling water. And the latest stampede of settlers, manifesting their destinies in cul-de-sacs and casino jobs, is responding to the desperate call for a conservation ethic with as much anger and confusion as compliance.

"There is a mind-set here that since water is such a necessity for life, God or the government will just take care of it so that there will always be enough," Hunt said. "That's the kind of thinking we have to change."

In Southern California, some local governments are trying to conserve by giving residents free low-flush toilets and building water-recycling plants on the grounds of new residential developments. In Arizona, golf courses are being redesigned with less natural turf and more efficient irrigation systems. In Las Vegas, a city that revels in its excesses, new campaigns to save water are even more unusual and aggressive.

As part of a "cash for grass" program, authorities here have begun giving residents as much as $400 each to replace their lawns with a more appropriate landscape of rocks and desert plants. They are even offering skeptics free seminars on ways to do it. Residents who convert to automated sprinkler clocks instead of old and unreliable timers set by hand are being paid about $50.

The city also approved controversial restrictions recently on how much natural turf can be in the front yards of new homes and around businesses. As part of the crackdown, all turf must be at least 10 feet wide and also be at least 2 feet from sidewalks and walls--so sprinkler water is not wasted.

Fairways on golf courses are being narrowed, and water officials have given thousands of residents free shower heads that limit water flow. In the blazing summer months, the water authority also is hiring dozens of "water cops" to wander through neighborhoods in search of conservation violations. The city even has a new hot line to which residents can tattle on neighbors wasting water.

Last year, it logged about 30,000 tips.

The West has always had a tough time balancing its water supply and demand. As early as the 1950s, there were campaigns reminding residents new to the desert that "too much splash is rash." But those shortages and warnings seem quaint compared to the crisis the region is beginning to face now.

Soaring population and the lifestyles that many newcomers insist on are sapping the area's limited water supplies like never before. Arizona leads the nation in new housing permits and southern Nevada, with its booming casino industry, is expanding at a breakneck pace. Metropolitan Las Vegas is welcoming as many as 5,000 new residents per month, along with more than 20 million tourists a year. And sometimes it seems like they all play golf.

In the mid-1980s, planners here predicted that there would be about 650,000 people living around Las Vegas by 2000. There are already about twice that many, and town house complexes are still being built farther into the Mohave Desert, which usually gets no more than four inches of rainfall a year.

"We can't treat this problem like we used to--with a crisis response, then back to business as usual," said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "Now, this is something that will be a serious issue for everyone, all the time, in every southwestern community."

Some residential groups in Las Vegas are heeding that message and trying to change their habits. The Painted Desert Homeowners Association, a planned 450-acre community on the edge of the city, is proposing to remove grass from all common areas on the site and it may drain much of its man-made lake.

But both ideas face opposition. "People really bring their landscape culture with them when they come here," said Bill Mullin, who moved to the Painted Desert community in Las Vegas from Oregon two years ago with his wife. "They say they can't live without the green. You hear them say, 'I don't want to live like it's a desert.' But it is. We can't keep pretending it isn't anymore."

Glenn Beahn, an Ohio native who lives in another sprawling green residential complex, said he has long resisted giving up his grass, even though it never grew the way he wanted. All the upkeep costs--a $50 monthly water bill, for starters--finally wore him down. He converted to a desert landscape last week.

"You know that water is precious out here, but it's still hard to change," he said. "There are a lot of people who say, 'It's my property, and I'll pay for all the damn water I want, so leave me alone.' I can respect that."

But now even powerful local interests such as the Southern Nevada Homeowners Association, which is constructing about 20,000 properties a year and still cannot keep pace with demand, are joining the cry for conservation. It supported new turf limits and is installing more efficient plumbing in homes even though that step is pricing some customers out of the Las Vegas housing market.

"People are slowly starting to see the implications of waste," said Jo Anne Jensen, a director of the association. "We've gone from almost no regulations on water use to regulations on practically every little thing."

The three states that need water most--Arizona, California and Nevada--have a complex agreement to share the Colorado River, which flows near the region. But the pace of growth in all three states is so swift that demand for water is beginning to exceed the supply that some cities receive. Water officials are already starting to fear the dire implications if a major drought strikes the river in the coming years.

The frontier mentality that still thrives in the West also makes it difficult for elected officials to win much support for curtailing growth. The largest planned community ever proposed in Los Angeles County, a development of nearly 22,000 homes in the dry Santa Clarita Valley, won approval recently. And Las Vegas keeps building monstrous resorts that bring more jobs and more people--and more demand for homes and water.

"Since so many people who already live here just came from somewhere else, it's hard to tell others who also want to come that they can't," Hunt said.

Preaching the cause of conservation, officials say, is their next best hope.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority now conserves about 15 percent of its annual water supply, its best showing ever. Just five years ago, when it did not spend any money promoting conservation, it saved less than half that amount. But the region still has a long way to go. Water officials say their goal 10 years from now is to be conserving more than one-fourth of their water supply.

Some of the strides are significant. In the past two years, more than half of the residents who purchased homes in Las Vegas have been persuaded to put desert landscapes on their property instead of lawns, for example. Other initiatives, even those enticing residents with wads of cash, are a harder sell.

So far, only about 70 customers are participating in the water authority's new "cash for grass" rebate program and giving up their lawns. Only about 300 have earned $50 for replacing antiquated sprinkler clocks. Some old-timers here who have never had to live with so much regulation of water are resisting the changes, as are some newcomers who cannot imagine life without lawns.

"Some people feel 'Big Brother' is getting very intrusive in their most personal space, their homes," Mulroy said.

Nearly two-thirds of the water supply in metropolitan Las Vegas goes to residential use, the bulk of it for lawn and outdoor plant care. The 5,000-room resorts that tower over the city's famous, or infamous, gambling strip consume only about 8 percent of the water, mostly because they have the money to recycle much of what they use. Elaborate water treatment plants have been built in the basements of some of the biggest new casinos.

But that fact is lost on many residents who see bizarre spectacles like the block-long artificial lake outside the new Bellagio resort and wonder why they cannot plant grass in their front yards or take lengthy showers anymore.

Dave Hunt, the water cop, hears the gripes all the time. He listens, but he is too much the crusader as he patrols, cell phone on his hip, ever ready to report even the smallest signs of waste, to back down.

"The problem is everywhere," he said one recent morning as he rambled through another new desert neighborhood. "You see all those palm trees? They didn't grow here. Someone put them in. People don't realize that. And a palm tree needs 250 gallons a day!"

Next stop, a rolling green hill next to a small fake lake. Hunt sighed.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "People think conservation is just the latest fad, or some government scheme. We have to get them to accept it as a way of life."

Slowing the Spigot

Western regions, such as southern Nevada, are promoting water conservation in the home.

Water use in southern Nevada
Overall breakdown
Residential breakdown
User
Percent
User
Percent

Industrial

1%

Outdoor water waste

30%

Government/schools

7%

Outdoor

30%

Hotels/motels

8%

Toilet

15%

Irrigation

8%

Shower

15%

Commercial

12%

Laundry

5%

Residential

64%

Faucet

4%

Dishwasher

2%

SOURCE: Southern Nevada Water Authority