(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aubrey Quick, the treasurer for the Gardens South Condominiums homeowners association in St. George, is joined by her husband Dale Hawkins, as they tour a project to remove grass in common areas in their community on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Thus far, the condominium complex has replaced 5,000 square feet of grass.

Washington County is getting serious about saving water, even as the Lake Powell pipeline seems like a pipe dream.

St. George • Zach Renstrom was pitching water conservation ideas several years ago to a homebuilder in his neighborhood — and clearly boring the man’s wife.

”One option,” Renstrom said, “is we just pay you to rip out the grass in your yard.”

She suddenly wasn’t bored anymore. “His wife looked up” from her phone, Renstrom remembers, “and said, ‘I’ll be damned if you rip out my grass so another Californian can move here.’”

Renstrom shares the story to show how attitudes are changing in the dry southwestern corner of the state. In 2023, the area served by the Washington County Water Conservancy District, where Renstrom is general manager, accounted for 34% of the grass torn out and replaced statewide — though it serves only 7% of Utah’s population.

And Washington County has become the first region in the state to ban nonfunctional grass, or “lazy” grass, on all new commercial, industrial and institutional developments. Today, Renstrom proudly points out, you can even spot yards that are grass-free in the showcase Parade of Homes.

”We have the most effective development standards in the state,” Doug Bennett, water conservation manager said recently. " … We are setting the pace for the state of Utah.”

Here’s how Renstrom and Bennett worked with others to change minds and ordinances, and what’s next.

Lake Powell pipeline pipe dream

When Renstrom took over nearly six years ago as general manager of the conservancy district, his predecessor Ron Thompson assured him that the region’s water worries were all but solved. The planned 140-mile Lake Powell pipeline would bring more than 27 billion gallons a year to Washington County.

“All you will have to do for the last 20 years of your career is just go and flip the switch, turn those pumps on every once in a while and then flip the switch off …,” Renstrom said Thompson told him. “I was like, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great gig and I don’t have to run for reelection.’”

But severe drought and soaring growth threw Renstrom a curve ball. A drought-depleted Lake Powell has turned the pipeline into a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Washington County’s population is projected by the Kem C. Gardner Institute to grow from about 200,000 today to more than 464,000 in 2060.

It doesn’t help, Renstrom said, that roughly 23% of the county’s housing is secondary or vacation homes, occupied by part-timers who aren’t counted in the census but use 90% as much water as their full-time neighbors. Throw in the 10 million tourists who visit the county each year, district officials say, and water concerns have grown exponentially.

Some clamored for a building moratorium to hold growth and water use in check. Meanwhile, business leaders demanded assurances there would be sufficient water before investing in the area.

Renstrom made a game plan: New homes had to be water-efficient. Owners of existing homes needed to be encouraged to replace their grass with desert landscaping. And the seven cities in the county needed to adopt stricter water conservation standards.

'Use the hammer'

Renstrom met with the Southern Utah Home Builders Association to make an unpopular call. Members needed to make major changes, he said, to help ensure the county didn’t run out of water.

“I told them I was going to use the hammer,” he said. “I said, ‘There’s no way, no how I will let a home be built in Washington County that I can’t guarantee that home has water forever.’”

He then asked builders how they felt about stricter water regulations. Their response: they hated government regulation and would fight the district. Since the hammer didn’t work, Renstrom opted to show them the carrot — asking whether they wanted to build 1,000 homes or, with water-saving changes, 2,000 homes.

After huddling amongst themselves, the builders told Renstrom they wanted to build 5,000 homes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Desert Color community in St. George on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, where development is booming.

And to get there, they pledged to support the district and to do whatever it took to achieve that goal, including helping persuade cities in the district to get on board with stricter standards.

“It came down to water sustainability and being able to build homes,” said Troy Ence, co-owner of Ence Homes. “Because if we don’t conserve water, there won’t be much development in the future.”

‘Get off your lazy grass’

In 2022, the conservancy district launched its Water Efficient Landscape Rebate program, which pays businesses and homeowners up to $2 per square foot to replace grass with landscaping that uses less water.

Its “Get Off Your Lazy Grass” campaign proved persuasive. Ofelia Cortez is one of many who have cashed in — the Bloomington retiree switched out her grass last fall and has received $5,000.

She enjoys saving money, she said, and revels in the compliments she fields from neighbors about her new yard.

Some owners at the Gardens South Condominiums in St. George were harder to convince. Aubrey Quick, treasurer for the condominiums’ homeowners association, said some residents objected when the association decided to participate in the program and replace half the grass in common areas.

“There were a few who were upset because they thought if they sell their condominium, it would lose value,” she said, “because there was no longer grass outside their back deck and they would not be able to have picnics or sunbathe in the grass.”

Thus far, the condominium complex has replaced 5,000 square feet of grass and collected $10,000, which it has used to offset the $17,000 it paid to landscapers to install xeriscaping.

“Since it’s been done,” Quick said, “we have received a lot of compliments.”

A grand slam with cities

The program also provided another way — along with the supportive homebuilders — to nudge cities. The district wouldn’t pay out the rebates to lawn rippers who lived in towns that hadn’t adopted stricter water conservation ordinances.

Homeowners who wanted to participate were told to go ahead and replace their grass, and then call their neighbors and city council members to solicit their support. The district would hold their check in the meantime.

The strategy helped bring the towns around. As of early 2024, all the district’s cities have signed on to the new water-efficiency standards.

Nearly 1.5 million square feet of grass – more than 25 football fields – have been replaced with water-efficient landscaping, according to the district’s calculations, resulting in a yearly savings of about 65 million gallons.

“To put that in perspective, if that was a single roll of 18-inch wide sod like you see at a nursery, it would stretch about 180 miles,” Bennett said.

New regulations further limit the amount of grass on residential development, require more water-smart features and levy a $10 surcharge for every 1,000 gallons of water new homes use in excess of 8,000 gallons during the winter, 15,000 gallons during fall and spring and 20,000 gallons during the summer.

By the district’s reckoning, the county has reduced its per capita water use by more than 30% since 2000.

The district’s customers (95% of the county’s population) consumed 39,711 acre-feet of water in 2022, compared to 37,896 acre-feet in 2018, a 4.8% increase. However, since the county’s population climbed 21% over the same period, the per capita water use rate dropped from 177 to 153 gallons per day.

'Building a water conservation culture'

Water conservation is one of the two main drivers of the 20-year plan the district unveiled a year ago to secure another 47,000 acre-feet of water by 2042 to keep pace with growth.

The other is investing more than $1 billion to construct more water reuse reservoirs and related infrastructure.

Edward Andrechak, president of Conserve Southwest Utah, said the group “is encouraged about the progress made over the last five years towards building a water conservation culture in southwest Utah.

With the changes so far, he said, “we have pivoted away from our high water consumption with a proposed single source solution, the Lake Powell pipeline, to a diversified, 20-year plan developed by the Water Conservancy District that is built on the core principles of conservation and reuse.”

Such praise, however modest, was rare in the past. In 2021, CBS news magazine show “60 Minutes” highlighted St. George’s high water usage. The following year, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver mocked St. George and Washington County for wasting water.

Like district officials, St. George leaders insist much of the county’s bad rap over water in the past is unjustified. Scott Taylor, St. George’s water services director, points out that St. George is using the same amount of water it did seven years ago, despite adding more than 8,000 connections over that period.

“We’re doing a lot better job now than we ever have,” Taylor said.

Bennett concurs, but adds there is always room for improvement. At a recent climate event at Utah Tech University, he noted the county still has an estimated 200 million square feet of lawn area, about 40% of which is nonfunctional or “lazy” grass that serves no purpose other than to soak up water.

Both Taylor and Renstrom are optimistic, noting that the area has had water issues ever since it was settled by pioneers in the mid-1850s, and residents and leaders have continued to find solutions.

The area’s first settlers moved their livestock off two springs for an hour each day so they could dip into the streams and slake their thirst with what passed for clean drinking water, Taylor said. And when water nearly ran dry in the St. George area in 1910 and again in the 1980s, it prompted a building moratorium, according to Renstrom.

In the first instance, pick- and shovel-wielding settlers dug a ditch to access mountain springs near the base of the Pine Valley Mountains to bolster the water supply. In the second, the district built Quail Reservoir and followed that in 2002 with the construction of Sand Hollow Reservoir.

“The pattern of doing more with water, being better stewards … and building water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told listeners at a recent Colorado River Collaborative gathering in Moab, “has been the legacy of Washington County.”


Reporter, The Salt Lake Tribune

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