Air conditioning units and sprinklers are still humming across most of the U.S. as the dog days of summer start to wind down. For the driest areas in America, sweltering days with soaring temperatures mean high rates of water use. And the future will likely bring even more demand for water. Western states like Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah continue to see high rates of population growth, and many predict that increasing demand will place pressure on already scarce water supplies.
One of the biggest culprits in terms of water use is the beloved American yard. Our lawns in the U.S. take up millions of acres of land, and keeping this vast area green makes up 30 to 60 percent of freshwater use in urban areas. In especially dry cities across the Southwest like Las Vegas, landscape irrigation makes up 60–90 percent of a household’s total water use. As development continues to expand across the West, more new homes are being built in some of America’s driest places. This expansion in housing also means an expansion of lawns that will all need to be watered to stay green all summer long.
Localscapes is a Utah-based non-profit that is working to make lawns less water-hungry by helping residents convert their traditional lawns to xeriscaping. This landscaping technique conserves water by shrinking or eliminating lawn areas, using native plants and smart irrigation techniques such as drip hoses or runoff collection. The Localscapes approach relies on incentives and education and offers valuable insights into how communities in dry environments can work with their environment instead of against it to reduce residential water use.
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” Mark Twain purportedly quipped about the water policy discussions in the West. Unlike the wetter eastern U.S., much of the western U.S. is an arid place so conflicts over who gets water and how much are not new. But a surprising trend is that overall water use in the U.S. has actually decreased since the 1980s, despite a growing population. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, both conservation efforts and increases in efficiency have been responsible for the downward trend in groundwater and surface water withdrawals. That’s exciting because it means we are now using less water to support more people (and their lawns).
But despite encouraging trends in efficiency and conservation, increasing pressures from population growth and climate change are bringing the issue of water scarcity back to the surface. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, water managers in 40 states expect to experience shortages in the next ten years. The map below from the National Climate Assessment illustrates water stress across the U.S., which occurs when demand from agriculture, power plants, and cities is greater than 40 percent of supply.
Incentives for lower water use
State and local governments play an essential role in managing water and working to improve conservation efforts. In 1941, Utah established several Water Conservancy Districts to provide for the “conservation and development of water and land resources.” Each water conservation district is given conservation goals by the Department of Natural Resources based on the district’s water needs. Localscapes was created by the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy in Utah to help meet its conservation goals.
Localscapes was created by a group of horticulturists, landscape designers, and irrigation and water experts out of the idea that unique weather, precipitation, climate, and culture make it important to have a local approach to landscaping. Localscapes aims to make it easy for residents to simplify their landscaping with a water-wise approach by creating five basic templates that anyone can apply to their own yard.
Localscapes provides direct cash incentives to landowners and contractors that participate in the program. Landowners receive a payment based on the size, scope, and conservation potential of their project to offset the higher cost of xeriscape installation compared to lawns, with the average quarter-acre lot receiving a payment of about $2,000. A study of a xeriscaping initiative in Nevada found the average cost of xeriscaping to be $1.55/sq. ft. Companies that partner with Localscapes can also receive a reward based on the incentive payment given to the client that hired them. Partnering companies that install a Localscapes-approved yard receive a payment equal to 90% of the reward given to the homeowner or 10% for designing a xeriscaped yard. Partnering landscapers that both design and install a new Localscape approved yard receive a payment matching that given to the landowner.
Finally, Localscapes also offers free classes and workshops for people interested in xeriscaping their yards. Because many people tend to see xeriscaped yards as unattractive or difficult to maintain, these workshops show participants how xeriscaped yards can be attractive, easier to maintain, cheaper, and of course, water-friendly. Localscapes also offers free design templates for DIYers as well as guides and info for xeriscape maintenance.
Xeriscaping projects like those that Localscapes facilitates offer an effective way to reduce domestic water use. On average, Localscapes saves about 130,000 gallons of water per year for each quarter-acre lot, which is about $354 using the average JVWCD water pricing. An academic study of xeriscaping in Nevada also found that xeriscaping saves an average of $206 in maintenance expenditures, meaning savings in irrigation and maintenance can total over $500 per year.
Many people still understandably enjoy their lawns and aren’t willing to give them up entirely. Localscapes finds a balance between cost and aesthetics, with lawns still featuring prominently in most of their planned designs, but making up a significantly smaller area. These designs use smarter irrigation techniques, where the lawn is designed around the range of a sprinkler system rather than trying (and often failing) to make a sprinkler system match the shape of the yard. Through incentive-based programs like Localscapes, we may be able to bridge the divide between cost, conservation, and culture.
The future of lawns and water in the West
The Localscapes experiment has shown that xeriscaping can be a worthwhile investment for both families and businesses. It cuts down on irrigation, maintenance, and labor, but the cost of conversion is too high for many people. Localscapes’s incentive program helps eliminate part of that cost while its free workshops and classes provide information about the benefits of xeriscaped yards.
A similar incentive approach was taken by the Southern Nevada Water Authority where each participant received a payment of $1/sq. ft. Over 18,000 residences and businesses participated in the program, reducing their total water use by an average of 30 percent and reducing their annual water costs by 54 percent.
Incentive and outreach-based xeriscaping programs could be an effective approach across the West and even across the United States. Special emphasis should be placed on new housing developments, as with Localscapes’ recent partnership with Utah’s largest home-builder Ivory Homes, where landscaping costs are already budgeted for, as well as office properties, which often host large lawns that are rarely used. A bit of planning during development and design can translate into long-term water and cost savings.
As climate change and population growth make water conservation imperative, efforts like xeriscaping yards may be the best way for everyday people to save both water and money. Incentives combined with outreach and education are a promising approach to help people reduce wasteful watering of America’s vast green lawns.