Dry as a bone: Las Vegas enforces new water restrictions

Meltdown Las Vegas
Posted at 8:35 PM, Apr 18, 2022

The megadrought gripping the Western United States is widening.

Fifty-seven percent of the country and 100% of Nevada is in some level of drought, and nowhere is it as obvious as along the Colorado River.

In the Southwestern U.S., the massive Lake Mead Reservoir near Las Vegas is not as massive as it used to be. The water level has dropped to near-record-low levels. Drought has reduced the flow of water into the river, which has forced communities to cut back.

"Conservation in this valley means getting after our landscaping uses," said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources at the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

SNWA saw this coming — it started enforcing aggressive water restrictions two decades ago. 

In the Las Vegas area, 40% of the water is used inside homes. That water is recycled and sent back to Lake Mead. But the other 60% is used outdoors. The harsh desert sun evaporates it and it can't be recaptured, leading the water levels in the river and reservoir to keep dropping. 

The water authority targeted the lush green grass that's not native to the desert, encouraging people to remove it.

"If that's not turf you're recreating on, if it's just there to look pretty or aesthetic, it really doesn't belong in this desert community," Pellegrino said.

At first, residents and businesses were slow to pull up their lawns. The removals surged in 2010, with almost 9 million square feet removed. The numbers dropped in the last few years; because it's been so productive, there's not much left to pull out.

Since the push started two decades ago, the Water Smart landscaping program has saved 152 billion gallons of water. That's enough to fill the Luxor Hotel Pyramid 422 times. But the authority is doubling down — it rebates homeowners and business owners $3 per square foot for the grass they remove (up to 10,000 feet), which is a lot of the good kind of green. And SNWA is working to implement even stricter rules.

"All new development cannot have turf unless it's a school park or cemetery," said Pellegrino.

Nevada's governor is also getting tough on lawns. He's signed a law requiring the removal of all decorative grass at businesses, complexes, along streets and in traffic medians in the next four years.

The program has been so successful that even as the population across southern Nevada grew by almost 50%, the amount of water used per capita was cut almost in half, and the water drawn from the Lake Mead Reservoir dropped by a quarter. 

Cities and other states throughout the West are considering getting tough on lawns due to the drought.

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