Washington County has given up 1 million square feet of grass in one year
That’s also the amount of grass the Washington County Water Conservation District helped people get rid of in the first year of its Water Efficient Landscaping Rebate Program. The district estimates these turf conversions will save 45 million gallons of water annually going forward.
“Every three diversion projects we see produce enough water savings to support two water-efficient households,” said Doug Bennett, the district’s water conservation manager. “This is really important in a rapidly growing community like ours.”
The program reimburses up to $2 per square foot when residents and businesses replace thirsty yards with drought-tolerant plants, artificial turf or rocky desert landscaping.
Similar grass buyback programs have started throughout Utah, but the idea appears to be spreading most quickly in Washington County. Although the county has less than 6 percent of the state’s population, it accounts for more than a quarter of the total turf replaced statewide over the past year, Bennett said.
“Even though the winter rerun wave was really plentiful last year, I think there was a lot of pent-up demand,” Bennett said. “People were ready to make a change and were looking for something to jump into and give them a little extra push.”
For this dry corner of the state, replacing ornamental grass is an important part of the long-term plan to get enough water to support its growing population.
The district’s 20-year water plan relies on water conservation to provide nearly a quarter of the additional water the district will need as it grows. Unlike other methods, such as expanding a wastewater recycling program or drilling new wells, rationalization can be implemented immediately without the need for new infrastructure.
“I just want to stress to people, we have to do it now because other new additional water won’t come into the program for another 7 to 10 years.”
Water conservation is also one of the most cost-effective ways the county can grow its water supply, Bennett said, and it provides other economic benefits as well. Because it motivates residents to start landscaping projects, it is estimated that it has pumped more than $4 million into the local economy. So far, about 80% of people who received discounts have hired landscapers to handle some or all of the work, he said.
Brad Crandall, owner of South Valley Landscaping in St. George, has seen more and more of his clients taking advantage of the discount. He welcomes change.
“I actually think it was really helpful from our perspective. Like, a lot of people who were on the fence decided to pull the trigger.”
It takes a little extra work to make sure projects meet the conservation area’s qualifications for the rebate, but it’s still relatively easy to check those extra boxes, he said.
The biggest trend he saw was artificial turf. He said many customers have thought about it for years but now see the discount as a reason to make the leap.
“It was like half and half, people wanting the grass versus wanting the grass,” Crandall said. “Now it’s so much like I can’t even remember the last time we installed turf.”
However, there can be challenges to being an early adopter.
The conservation district’s Bennett said he’s heard from people who worry about what their neighbors might think if they were the first home on the block to get rid of the grass and do something different with their landscape. The more people break that barrier, the easier it will be for more neighbors to follow, he said.
“Once someone does that, it becomes an infection,” he added. “I think this will be the second wave.”
This makes Bennett confident the district can double the results from its first year and turn 2 million square feet of turf in 2024.
He knows it’s possible. He helped build a similar program in Las Vegas, where residents have replaced more than 200 million square feet of turf in the past two decades.
With more than 700 other applicants in the pipeline, the program already has a big head start compared to where it started, he said. As more people in southwestern Utah change the way they think about landscaping, his idea of leaving the grass behind has become a little easier.
“Think about all the resources you put into your garden and ask yourself: What does it get back to me?” If you’re wondering whether to get ahead, you probably have a lazy garden.