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Drought-plagued Nevada pledged to do away with 3,900 acres of grass in the Las Vegas area within six years, but a ProPublica analysis found that the state grossly overestimated how much of that grass would likely be removed.
As millions of newcomers have flocked to the Las Vegas Valley over the past 50 years, every level of government in the nation’s driest state has worked to ensure that water shortages don’t stop the growth.
Since 1999, southern Nevada has ripped out thousands of acres of turf from lawns, sports fields and roadway medians under the West’s most ambitious grass-removal program. These efforts helped halve the amount of water each resident consumed and freed up enough for Clark County to add nearly 1 million people.
Now, the valley is again looking to grass removal to continue growing without increasing its overall water use. In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed a first-of-its-kind law mandating the elimination of “nonfunctional turf,” defined as grass that is decorative and rarely used. The Southern Nevada Water Authority promised this would do away with 3,900 acres of grass (roughly 3,000 football fields) within six years.
But by analyzing the water authority’s own aerial imagery, ProPublica found that the agency grossly overestimated how much of that grass could be removed: That number could actually be as low as 1,100 acres. That error, combined with pushback to the ban—especially from homeowners associations looking to avoid turf removal costs and preserve their communities’ aesthetic—could leave the region short of the water savings it needs.
This comes at a precarious time. The Colorado River, which supplies 90% of the Las Vegas Valley’s water, has been hit by a megadrought, and Lake Mead has fallen to historic lows. The agriculture industry uses the vast majority of the dwindling river, but Las Vegas and other cities that also rely on the Colorado must scramble to find savings. Meanwhile, the federal government is mulling drastic cuts to their water supply.
As other Western states try to replicate southern Nevada’s water conservation success, the diminishing returns from its marquee program have experts questioning whether the effort will be enough to support continued growth in a hotter, drier future.
“Get rid of Denver, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, LA, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson—the whole nine yards—and you still would not reach the amount of water you need to save,” Colby Pellegrino, the water authority’s deputy general manager of resources, told ProPublica. “As a basin, the answer is not lying within the entire urban sector. There has to be participation from agriculture and industrial.”
Some HOAs already see the limits of this strategy. After years of minimizing the water used on landscaping, staff members at Sun City Anthem, a retirement community of more than 10,000 people in Henderson, say they’ve run out of nonfunctional turf to remove. All that’s left is a lawn they want to keep for events like movie nights.
“That was the end,” said Larry Fossan, the community’s facilities manager and landscape supervisor. “We can’t save any more water.”
As Fossan passed through a common area where elderly residents were socializing, a woman glanced up from a game of mahjong and asked suspiciously, “Are you taking more grass?”
Where's the Turf?
Each year, southern Nevada is allotted 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, which SNWA supplements with about 47,000 acre-feet of groundwater from beneath the Las Vegas Valley. (An acre-foot is roughly enough water to supply two to three homes per year.) But impending cuts to allocations from the river could bring southern Nevada dangerously close to exceeding its supply.
Projections show by 2035 Clark County’s population will grow 27% to nearly 3 million people. Without cuts to water use, the larger population will require about 400,000 acre-feet a year—far more than it is entitled to use. To meet the demand, it must reduce future water use by more than 100,000 acre-feet.
The plan to get the savings relies in large part on reducing grass. It’s a strategy the water authority has leaned on for decades. Rather than just urging residents to take shorter showers or run only full loads of laundry, it has consistently looked for water savings outdoors. That’s because the agency already treats and recycles virtually all water used indoors. It sends that water back to Lake Mead, earning “return-flow credits,” which allow it to draw an equal amount from the reservoir.
But water applied to landscaping can’t be recouped. It either evaporates or soaks into the ground instead of returning to Lake Mead. So, in 1999, the water agency created a program to pay residents a one-time incentive to remove their lawns.
Later, the water authority and its members—Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and several water districts—restricted the size of lawns in new developments and increased financial incentives to rip out existing turf at homes and businesses, significantly reducing outdoor water use.
But once the easy-to-get grass was gone, the water savings dwindled.
“Some of these larger nonresidential users—everybody from HOAs to office parks—didn’t seem to be interested in taking advantage of the voluntary system,” Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Las Vegas Democrat, said.
So Watts jumped at the water authority’s idea for a legislative mandate to remove nonfunctional turf. Together, they sold the Nevada Legislature on the premise that such a ban could save nearly a quarter of the water needed to supply the expected population growth.
After standing by its projection for several years, the water authority has acknowledged the difficulty of tearing out 3,900 acres. During a January board meeting, the agency revealed a new estimate for the amount of grass that will likely be removed—1,706 acres. Pellegrino said the agency’s first projection was only meant to define “the realm of the possible of what exists in the valley for turf conversion.” She told ProPublica the water authority revised its number after changing software, applying a more nuanced definition of nonfunctional turf and addressing an error that double counted turf at properties with multifamily housing.
The agency’s updated projection also includes grass underneath trees, which was not captured by the aerial imagery and, as a result, was not included in ProPublica’s analysis. Some grass has been removed since the survey was conducted in 2020.
Watts, the lawmaker who championed the ban, said he was unaware of the agency’s miscalculation.
“I wish that the impact was going to be higher,” he said. But “at the end of the day, addressing nonfunctional turf is still a critical issue for our community and something that we have to invest in and have strong policy on.”
The ban doesn’t officially go into effect until 2027. By then, all nonfunctional turf must be gone. But only 173 acres of grass that could be covered under the ban have been removed so far—meaning compliance must skyrocket to meet even the scaled-back goal.
HOAs Resist Turf Removal
On a recent morning, Shawn Buckley, vice president of Par 3 Landscape and Maintenance, surveyed his company’s work at Desert Shores, a roughly square-mile development in northwest Las Vegas. Small boats floated on the community’s four artificial lakes, which are ringed by tens of thousands of square feet of grass.
“When everyone moved here, they all wanted grass,” Buckley said, “an oasis in the desert.”
Buckley gestured at a patch of yellow lawn his company would replace with desert-friendly landscaping. Across the street, new plants had already been installed—desert shrubs and evergreens surrounded by stones.
Twenty years from now, “the only grass you’ll see is golf courses, sports fields, parks,” Buckley said. “And the rest you’ll see will be a beautiful, vibrant desert.”
Desert Shores represents the highs and lows of HOAs’ participation in water conservation. While the community hired Par 3 to remove some turf, it also fought to save other grass.
To gain support for the nonfunctional turf ban, Watts and the water authority created a process to request exemptions from the law. HOAs, including Desert Shores, jumped at the opportunity.
“The board and management are working closely with SNWA to retain as much grass (functional turf) as possible,” Desert Shores’ management wrote to residents in a May 2022 newsletter. Staff requested residents send in photos of grass being used to help make their case. The HOA’s management estimated that it would cost $4.6 million to replace turf with water-efficient landscaping.
By March, the water authority had processed 18 waiver applications. Eleven HOAs were among the applicants. The agency approved 11 requests, mostly from HOAs, even though some applicants didn’t answer questions about how the exempted grass would be used.
Desert Shores’ three requests for waivers were approved, and the community will keep some of the grass that lines its artificial lakes.
Across the valley, the director of an HOA in Henderson called Warm Springs Reserve struck a deal with the water authority. He wanted to avoid a fight with residents over a special assessment—an additional fee charged to association homeowners—to pay for turf removal, so he suggested making a large swath of grass “functional” by installing a bench.
The water authority gave the Henderson HOA the green light.
Savona, an HOA in Summerlin, requested a waiver to keep a 6,226-square foot plot of grass by the community’s gated entrance. Part of the explanation: It hosts three events there a year. Across the street is a large, grassy public park.
SNWA approved the request.
Desert Shores, Savona and Warm Springs Reserve did not respond to requests for comment.
Pellegrino said a one-size-fits-all approach was never going to work in every case, so the waiver process was created to protect turf that has a high value to residents. Some of the waiver requests might be approved with little explanation because the agency has worked with the HOAs for years, she said, and “we know what their goals are for managing the space and how these spaces are used.”
When the turf removal mandate was debated in 2021, it had broad support, including from environmentalists, cities and homebuilders. In a key hearing, the only opposition came from a private citizen saying the bill didn’t go far enough and from the Community Associations Institute, which represents HOAs, saying it went too far.
Chris Snow, the Community Associations Institute’s executive director, said via email that HOAs are no longer challenging the ban because “it is the law and associations are dealing with the costs.”
HOAs have worked to reduce the impact of the nonfunctional turf ban on their communities— ncluding via attempts to influence the committee that officially defined nonfunctional turf and requests to be exempted from the ban. So Watts and the agency returned to the Legislature this session, in part, to close zoning loopholes in the mandate.
Some residents chafe at the mandate that their communities give up grass to enable continued growth.
“Only the land developers actually benefit from all of this sacrifice by existing residents for future new residents,” Stacy Standley, a board member of Spanish Trail, an HOA in southwest Las Vegas, wrote in comments to the committee fine-tuning the rules. He compared the strategy to robbing Peter’s well to pay Paul’s well, “Until Both Wells Run Dry.”
The Limits of Urban Water Conservation
Of the 10 fastest-growing states, four are in the Colorado River Basin, and cities across the region are looking to the Las Vegas Valley as they prepare for a water-scarce future. In 2022, SNWA persuaded water providers in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to sign a public pledge to pursue conservation measures, including turf replacement. Watts has called Nevada’s recent efforts “an important signal to other urban communities.”
“If everyone else takes on similar initiatives, we’ll be able to sustain our community and communities across the Colorado River Basin for future generations,” he told the Legislature.
But southern Nevada’s success in squeezing water conservation from cities also reveals its limits.
In search of more savings, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill, AB220, that would cap individual homes’ water use at half an acre-foot in times of water shortages. The bill at one point included a mandate that septic tank users connect to sewers to create more return-flow credits, which elicited loud opposition from residents who could’ve been forced to pay thousands of dollars for the work. The mandate was removed in favor of a voluntary program.
“When you pulled out your last blade of grass, when you fixed your last pipe, there comes a point when you can’t get any more efficient,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a Nevada-based environmental nonprofit.
Bret Birdsong, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies water law, said this realization has started a once-unthinkable conversation in the fast-growing state.
“Limits on growth, maybe at one point, were totally off-limits,” he said. “But, it’s no longer a third rail. It’s something that I think people are becoming more comfortable talking about as a fact of life.”
At an SNWA meeting in March, staff demonstrated a tool to grade businesses on water use. Government agencies could use it to help decide whether to grant them permits to open up shop. John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, said SNWA had already begged Henderson to reject a proposed bottling facility last year because of water concerns, which the city did.
In Arizona, officials announced last week that the state would no longer approve new residential development near Phoenix that relies only on groundwater.
But the agriculture industry is an even bigger consumer of Western water that could yield savings dwarfing anything available in cities. Farming accounts for an estimated three-quarters or more of the water used across the Colorado River Basin.
It can cost a few hundred dollars to pay a farmer to forgo using an acre-foot of water for a year, depending on the location, and in the thousands to buy that water outright.
It’s a fraction of what cities are paying to save water. Colorado Springs, for example, considers it a bargain if it can conserve an acre-foot of urban water for anything less than $10,000, according to Catherine Moravec, senior water conservation specialist at Colorado Springs Utilities.
SNWA pays about $17,500 to conserve an acre-foot through its residential turf removal incentive program.
“We need to make sure that our municipalities are as efficient as possible,” Moravec said, but “the solution to the Colorado River issues is not turf replacement.”