Posted on | June 11, 2009 | 9 Comments
WHEN George Knapp rumbles, people who care about water listen, even people routinely savaged by him. In April, Knapp and photojournalist Matt Adams won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for their KLAS-TV special “Crossfire: Water, Power and Politics,” which gave voice to the outrage and incredulity among conservationists, farmers and scientists over a bid by Las Vegas to drive a 300-mile-long pipeline into the heart of the Great Basin to pump its ground water south.
If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Few evening news programs attempt, never mind master, complicated essays on the cost of urban water in the West. This one does.
So it’s not necessarily remarkable that Knapp and I should clash. The funny thing is we don’t really clash fact-for-fact on the pipeline story. Where we collided head on today was about conservation as practiced in Las Vegas versus conservation as practiced in Los Angeles.
He lives in Vegas, I live in LA. Today, for Knapp and me, each writing in different publications, the grass was browner on the other side.
Knapp, while dismissing the Lake Mead elevation link as a phony trigger for starting the pipeline, also dismissed Las Vegas’s conservation programs. Rather, writing in Las Vegas City Life, he celebrated what he saw in Los Angeles. “…our idea of conservation is to offer a completely voluntary turf buy-back plan, a program so successful the authority stopped funding it,” he wrote. “Other Southwestern cities like Los Angeles and San Diego are serious about water conservation: Water agencies there have told their customers to cut their use or else face financial consequences. Las Vegas is unlikely to take reasonable steps to cut down per capita water use, even as the authority’s officials wring their hands and warn us how awful the future will be with no water.”
Meanwhile, today in the LA Times, I wrote, “For years Southern California water managers paid scant attention to outdoor water conservation. Then they saw stunning savings achieved in Nevada. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, in the last decade, Las Vegas has removed more than 125 million square feet of grass, saving 7 billion gallons of water a year. That’s almost one-tenth of Southern Nevada’s annual water supply.”
Who’s right? In this instance I think I am. According to a SNWA spokesperson, the authority hasn’t stopped funding its cash-for-grass program, though “new limits were added last year to reduce costs — golf courses and large properties can only do so many sq ft per year not the unlimited amount each year that they used to be able to convert. There is also a new funding source (bonds) to fund the program as connection charges which used to fund the program have disappeared due to the economy and no growth in Vegas.”
But that doesn’t make me as right as I’d like to be. Maybe in looking between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, George Knapp and I are comparing one chronic waster to another. Until the June 1 ordinances limiting watering and sudden June 2 announcement that LA was funding a new cash-for-grass program, our gutters have runneth over. Drought? What drought?
But for all the success of Southern Nevada’s program, even a decade into openly declared drought, you see gutters abrim there as sprinkler systems refresh the turf-rims of master planned communities. I’ve seen it and you can bet George Knapp sees it.
I stand by Las Vegas being a model that LA should follow — in murdering grass. But as I look at today’s Whose lawn is browner brinksmanship, it points up the crying need for systematic ways to compare conservation in our western cities, to grade them, and to set conservation goals.
Please could everyone who cares and knows about this weigh in and blog on it?
In the meantime, if you are a gardening reader and not a water politics wonk, instead of watering your lawn, look how lovely the water is when it’s left in the exquisite natural ecosystems that our water authorities are forced to pump.