Utah should pay homeowners to replace grass with xeriscaping, Cox says

Governor also wants better technology to monitor water use on Utah’s farms and ranches

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Waves break on the shoreline of Utah Lake near the American Fork Boat Harbor on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Gov. Spencer Cox said Utahns are getting the message to conserve water amid the crippling drought gripping almost all of the state — which is about the only weapon in Utah’s arsenal right now.

First, the good news.

“We’ve seen significant reductions in water usage across the state. Every water district has reported significant savings compared to this time last year and in years past,” Cox said, praising conservation efforts.

Cox also said there are fewer wildfires burning in Utah in recent weeks, despite the increased danger from dry conditions.

“I can tell you that other states are looking at Utah very jealously right now. We have a couple of fires burning right now, but they’re 90% under control. We’ve been lucky, but this is a direct response to people’s behavior,” he said.

Now, for the bad news. There’s not much more the state can do about the drought in the short term.

“Asking people to conserve is not a bad idea in terms of our water usage,” said Brian Steed, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “... Sixty percent of our municipal water goes toward outdoor watering. If we can cut back on that, we’ve already had substantial savings. That’s a good first start.”

Municipal water use makes up about 15% of all water use in Utah. The largest share goes toward agriculture, which accounts for more than 72% according to figures from the United States Geological Survey. It is unclear exactly how much water goes toward agricultural use as the Utah Divison of Water Resources says it mostly relies on estimates.

While most efforts are focused on managing the here and now, state officials are looking to Utah’s water future and how to manage skyrocketing growth by preserving a precious natural resource. Cox said his administration is committed to pushing for more aggressive conservation measures, but they are long-range considerations and would require the legislature to get on board. Some ideas include metering secondary water systems, which the Legislature is already planning to do, improved technology for farmers and ranchers so they can use water more wisely, and mandating more water-wise landscaping for new developments.

Cox also floated was a “turf buyback” program, in which the state would pay property owners to tear out grass and replace it with xeriscaping or more water-wise landscaping.

“These types of programs are typically offered at the local level. We’re not aware of any state that offers such a program, and we want to be the first state to offer a turf buyback program,” Cox said.

Cox’s proposal is similar to the “Flip Your Strip” initiative offered by the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District which offers homeowners a financial incentive to replace the grass on parking strips with water-wise landscaping.

“We need to expand this over the next few years. Rather than using grass as the default groundcover that’s only walked on when it’s mowed, implementing a statewide rebate program will show that Utah is serious about conservation,” Cox said.

That’s ambitious, but Cox may have his work cut out for him if he wants to implement it on a statewide level. The biggest hurdle will be selling lawmakers on the idea.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who works on water issues for the Legislature called the idea “intriguing,” but he is worried about whether it can be implemented fairly.

“What about people who have already xeriscaped their lawns and won’t get money from the state. How do we make that fair?” Sandall asked.

“You save a lot of money in your water bills if you convert that lawn, so I don’t know if we need to add more of a financial benefit on it,” Sandall added.

Then there’s how to pay for it. Lawmakers are already planning on using $280 million of federal COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to improve Utah’s water infrastructure. Roughly $100 million of that is already going toward implementing water meters on secondary water systems statewide. Secondary water is a water source that’s not treated and non-potable. Most secondary water is used for agriculture or irrigation.

Cox may have a tough time getting them to dip into ARPA funds for the program, as lawmakers have already said they want that money to be used for “generational” programs.

No matter what Cox proposes, there won’t be any impact in the near term. Even if lawmakers find the cash to fund these programs, the earliest they will go into effect is next spring or early summer. Realistically, they won’t bear fruit, or water, until 2023.