Thirsty lawns add to Utah water woes

Published August 19, 2008 12:08 am
State looks to conserve water, landscaping fixes might help
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The front lawn kept bleaching beige under the high-desert sun's August assaults.

They opened the nozzles, flushing more of the Wasatch Mountains' limited snowmelt through sprinkler heads and onto the bluegrass and the hot sidewalk, holding their ground in an east-side Salt Lake Valley neighborhood of chemically enhanced greens. It took hoses and watering cans to slake the nagging brown splotches. No wonder Utah is second only to Nevada in per-person water use.

Bob Grant and Marilyn Smith stopped fighting.

"We just could not throw enough water onto it," Grant said of their Millcreek burden.

Time for a radical lawnectomy.

The retired couple called a xeriscaping firm in 2001 and set in motion a makeover that substituted arid grasses, native desert shrubs, fruits, flowers and trees. They blew Utah's per-person conservation goals out of the water while creating a hummingbird haven that they prefer anyway.

"Our neighbor is always on his knees," working his turf, Smith said. "I tell him: 'You're praying to the sprinkler god.' "

It's all in fun - until Utah runs out of water.

Here in the state's largest metropolitan valley, 1 million Utahns have about 11 years until H2O judgment day. At current watering rates and with projected population growth, that's when Salt Lake County's biggest water district either must enforce water rationing or spend $1 billion on new supplies, including a pipeline from the sensitive Bear River, northern Utah's migratory-bird oasis.

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District wants to push back the Bear River expense until about 2035 by getting everyone to cut back 25 percent on the water they averaged in 2000. That's also the state's goal for 2050. Jordan Valley is trying to get there by 2025.

In Utah's dry climate, the elixir of life falls as snow in the mountains and then melts to reload canyon streams and reservoirs. Building new pipelines spreads big costs among all users.

Jordan Valley customers comprise more than half the Salt Lake Valley's population. They would have to pay $100 more in today's dollars per home every year to fund new water projects if they don't meet the conservation goal by 2025, District Assistant General Manager Bart Forsyth said. That's about a 25 percent bump for most.

Delaying the Bear River project saves on financing and spreads the costs to a future suburban Jordan Valley district population that the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget expects to grow from 550,000 today to 1.1 million in 2050.

It doesn't take war on lawns to reach the conservation goal. In fact, Salt Lake City Water Conservation Coordinator Stephanie Duer said most people can get there with modest tinkering. Some plant just a few drought-tolerant plants along side yards. An irrigation timer that detects the weather prevents unnecessary watering after rains. And the state's "Slow the Flow" educational campaign advises Utahns to water every two or three days in July, less in other months.

People should start with a leak inspection, Duer said. If a sprinkler head is bubbling water nonstop, it means a valve is stuck. A free utility-meter check can unveil any hidden plumbing leaks. Households that fix leaks can cut 13 percent of their water.

"No matter what you want to do with your landscape, or what you want to put on it," Duer said, "you can always do better with water."

Capital residents and industries have dropped peak summertime demand from 214 million gallons a day in 2000 to 181 million gallons during this month's peak. Summertime use is now about five times winter use, a ratio Duer wants to trim to 3-to-1.

The state is counting on conservation to cover at least two-thirds of the new demand for the next 50 years, Utah Division of Water Resources Director Dennis Strong said.

That conservation ethic is slow-growing, but it is growing. Utah measures per-capita daily water use every five years and saw a reduction from 295 gallons in 2000 to 260 in 2005, Strong said. Two-thirds of Utah's culinary water feeds outdoor landscaping, and many people are watering less often or more efficiently.

"Utahns in general have caught on to the conservation ethic," he said. They still need to get to 220 gallons a day, though.

Jordan Valley's per-capita watering plunged from 255 gallons in 2000 to 207 during the drought warnings of 2005. Since then, through heat that crisped ornamentals a year ago, the chart has rebounded like a cardiogram. The average resident used 228 gallons a day in 2006, and 251 last year.

That sounds like a relapse, but Forsyth, the district official, will take it. Last year's heat required more watering. With a weather reprieve, conservation ads are resonating again. "We can say with a straight face that we still achieved conservation in 2007," Forsyth said.

Bob Grant and Marilyn Smith sprinted way ahead of conservation goals when they ripped up their Millcreek turf.

Bees dodge around the lavender and orange blanket flowers in their front yard, between little granite boulders and shady pines. Three hairy yuccas send up pink flowers from their spiked crowns every spring.

In the middle was a leftover patch of lawn little bigger than a kiddie pool, but that kept on browning because the couple sometimes forgot they still had to water something. This summer they ripped it out and sprinkled a hardier seed mix.

Around back there's buffalo grass - a mat that takes longer to green up in spring but rarely needs water or mowing. Around it are peach trees, clumps of 3-foot-tall blue mist spirea, showers of blue penstemon and spears of pink gaura. A buried grid of irrigation pipes delivers occasional water to the roots instead of spraying it into the air.

"I wasn't trying to give an Arizona look to the yard," Smith said, adoring the colors and the restrained abundance of it all.

Results: Average annual water savings of 80 percent.

It was not cheap. Counting a custom design and professional help installing plants, the pair spent about $10,000 to alter nearly 2,000 square feet and build an irrigation system.

It's grander than most people need. The average Utahn can beat the conservation goal at a fraction of that cost. Most won't have to swap out a single blade of grass.

Duer paid $300 for new sprinkler controls at her father's home to water shrubs, trees and the lawn separately. Half that money came back in a utility rebate.

Her father now uses half the water he once did.


About the water series

This summer, The Salt Lake Tribune is exploring Utah's water challenges. Previous installments have explored water rights, dam safety and growth. To read previous stories, go to http://www.sltrib.com,

* TODAY: How to save water.

* NEXT: Kane County water and nuclear power.

* South Jordan may revise parking strip rules to help conserve water. B3

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