The grass is always browner on the other side

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.

As disclosure, I should say that I too addressed the Las Vegas / Great Basin story in a year-long special assignment for the Las Vegas Sun. And by way of bragging, I will add that I too won a prize.

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.


Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada

Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada. The Southern Nevada Water Authority argues that this water is needed in Las Vegas. Opponents of the proposed SNWA pipeline insist the water is needed where it is to support Great Basin ranching, flora and fauna. Photo: Emily Green


9 Responses to “The grass is always browner on the other side”

  1. Adan Ortega Jr.
    June 12th, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    You are both right. Southern California has long invested in a diverse portfolio of water resources. We started doing conservation back in the 1990’s installing enough ultra-low-flow toilets and showerheads in a campaign that has lasted over a decade. We also turned the focus to outdoor conservation in 2002. More water gets recycled in this region than anywhere else in the US. I recall giving tours to Australians and South Africans in the mid-1990’s. However, Las Vegas and even Australia have surpassed us in new conservation technologies and outdoor conservation. Why? My guess is that they don’t have the diverse portfolio made possible by local investments that we do in SoCal. We have been recovering contaminated groundwater basins, strategically storing water during good years, conserving and funding recycled water and stormwater capture programs. The best source to see this is in MWD’s Annual Report to the Legislature on Conservation, groundwater replenishment and recycled water. Tom Hayden authored SB60 that requires that report and the investments made by Southern California agencies are fairly impressive.

  2. admin
    June 12th, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    OK, but my impression of outdoor conservation is that Southern Nevada beat Met at its own game, particularly at lawn rebates and particularly since 2002. Because lawn is such a phenomenal waste of water here in Southern California, I do not understand Met not investing more in their garden conservation programs and DWP waiting until 2009 to do a Vegas-style cash for grass program. Surely for DWP it’s cheaper to buy back lawn then buy up yet more of Owens Valley, though DWP appears to be doing both.

  3. Denis Wolcott
    June 12th, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Lost in the discussions about lawns is our standard of living, the different climates and where to gain the greatest water savings.

    While we can all do with less lawn in Southern California, grass or some kind of plant life provides us with not only a pleasant neighborhood to live in, but can help maintain a positive economy. Businesses and cities seek landscapes to beautify neighboods and office parks. People want to live in communities with parks nearby so their children can frolic and play ball. After the grass is eliminated, what’s next? Cut down all the trees? A balance needs to be struck and it doesn’t come from such drastic measures as what occurs in Las Vegas.

    Also keep in mind the difference in climate zones: Las Vegas (hot desert) and Southern California (three major zones from cool coastal to inland desert). Lawn certainly is not appropriate in Las Vegas, but it’s OK in some areas of Southern California. And, let’s not lose sight of low-watering-using strains of turf.

    The real villan in Southern California has been, and probably still is, the automatic water sprinkler. Even if we tear out all the grass, we still need to set our timers properly to water even the drought-tolerant landscapes. If Emily wants to go after a real water waster – attack the automatic sprinkler controller (and the gardeners who continually set the times far too high).

    The easy thing to do is cast an evil eye toward lawns, much like Southern California was blamed for stealing Northern California’s water just to fill up swimming pools. Nice visually appealing targets, but far from dealing with all the issues. Changing public behavior on a permanent and large scale will require a broader, well-executed set of efforts. Do we need villans or champions?

  4. admin
    June 12th, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    It merits here adding a comment about the two esteemed bloggers on this subject. Denis Wolcott and Adan Ortega were at Metropolitan as drought began to grip the Colorado River in 2002. The period is notable because Metropolitan was also forced to make sudden and sizable cutbacks in Colorado River water use to comply with demands by other states on the river and a settlement overseen by the Department of Interior. Both men worked assiduously to mount the BeWaterWise and California Friendly campaigns. Californians rightly bristle at suggestions that they didn’t conserve well enough during that period, when they in fact saw the state through dramatic cutbacks. My own criticisms can seem to ignore this, but if anything, they amount to a demand for Metropolitan to fund the programs begun by Ortega and Wolcot to their full potential. Instead we have Metropolitan’s board suspending rebates while auditing a $24m shortfall, $2m of which evidently affect residential customers wishing to upgrade their sprinkler systems and the like.

  5. admin
    June 12th, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    MWD 2, SNWA 0.

  6. Adan Ortega Jr.
    June 12th, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    The audit will surely leave out the true cost of wasting water especially outdoors in terms of contaminated runoff – as well as the true full value of conservation in terms of preventing contaminated run-off, avoiding the natural/economic damage of contaminated rivers and coastlines, as well as the benefits of recovery of that water in our aquifers. In San Diego, for example, sewage treatment plants are still not treating to full tertiary treatment – much less capable of treating pesticide/fertilizer ridden run-off from lawns (storm or spigot driven). I agree with Emily that our values are out of whack, and that we have fallen behind even in encouraging permanent conservation tools. I accept Denis’ premise about lawns in SoCal but the fact is that we could save a ton of water by limiting our lawns to the water they need – we over water period. Even the current water restrictions leave room for a return to “normal” when waste can resume – that’s what rationing is by its very nature. We will make true progress when we accept the new normal preventing the waste of water under any conditions.,

  7. admin
    June 12th, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    MWD 3, SNWA 0.

  8. Melanie Winter
    June 15th, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Yes, yes. Adan and Denis have both done fine work developing conservation programs for MWD – and they continue to to a good job defending the agency. You may be equally impressed if their counterparts in Nevada weighed in. Yet here we are. What you asked for systematic ways to compare and grade conservation efforts and set goals. Why not take a tip from Australia? Establish a reasonable average daily # of gallons per person in each region. Set the target, set a timeline, and you’re off to the races. It worked to change habits long term down under. It seems that it could be a reasonable means of both accomplishing and monitoring conservation improvements here.

  9. admin
    June 16th, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    Melanie has cut to the chase. The best measure we have is using gallon per day per capita consumption. The staff of 1 here needs to go to a very cool Vector Control meeting about mosquitoes, which get more gpdpc than they should in the arid West. But more on this later.

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