Wildfires Have Closed National Forests Around the West—and It’s Going to Get Worse — Backpacker Magazine

Screenshot from https://inciweb.nwcg.gov June 27, 2021.

From Backpacker Magazine (Shannon Davis):

The 2021 fire season is off to a quick and disconcerting start.

Summer is fire season in the arid West, and this year is already off to a historic start. There are currently 800 square miles of land burning, and the National Interagency Fire Center has raised national wildfire preparedness to level 4 out of 5—meaning that “much of the country is experiencing wildland fire activity” and that “more than half firefighting resources are committed.” If that sounds bad, it’s because it is: This is the second-earliest level-4 designation since 1990 and only the fourth time in the past 20 years to reach this level in June.

More than 9,000 wildland firefighters across the U.S. are currently battling 52 large fires in 13 states. Arizona has 14 of those fires, followed by California, Utah, and Colorado with 6. Not all are western states, either. North Carolina and Florida each have one.

Experts say the current fire behavior more resembles what’s seen in August, not June. This persistent fire activity has led to a rash of land closures.
Nowhere has been hit as hard as Arizona. Coconino and Kaibab national forests are closed as of 8 a.m. June 23, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are closed to visitors as of June 24. Prescott National Forest will close this week as well, starting at 8 a.m. June 25. All state land is also closed, as is half of the Arizona Trail. The restrictions are expected to last several weeks.

Other states have started closing fire-affected public lands as well. Portions of Custer Gallatin National Forest System lands near Red Lodge, Montana are closed as is Sylvan Lake State Park in Colorado, where the Sylvan Fire has burned more than 3,700 acres as of the time of writing. With ongoing, severe drought conditions throughout the west, hikers should expect more closures throughout the season.

The Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District accepts grant to repair pumps, awards solution contract — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Wastewater lift station

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Joe Napolitan):

During a meeting on June 17, the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) Board of Directors voted unanimously to accept a grant award from the Small Communities Water and Wastewater Grant Fund.

According to the agenda brief, in early March PSSGID, staff informed the board that they had taken the initiative to apply for a grant to repair the lift stations that pump sewage to the Vista Treatment Plant. The grants are specifically for small communities that need funds to protect the water quality in the region.

“The grant application was for the maximum amount of that grant, $400,000 and the GID of- fered a match of $100,000 for a total amount of $500,000,” said Public Works Director Martin Schmidt. “That amount was determined by what [we] anticipated were the costs for replacing the pumps and pricing at the lift stations.”

The brief states that the staff made it very clear in the applica- tion that the failing lift stations are a serious problem and must be remedied with a long-term solution.

On Tuesday, June 7, the staff received a letter informing the district that the application was successful…

The agenda brief states that the funds will be used for replacement of equipment at Pump Stations 1 and 2, where there continue to be unsustainable failures with the pumps.

The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District asks customers to use odd/even irrigation — The #PagosaSprings Sun #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

Pagosa Country is still in a voluntary drought stage, according to a June 21 press release from the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Manager Justin Ramsey.

To avoid entering the next drought stage, PAWSD has asked for home and business owners to voluntarily implement an odd/ even irrigation schedule. The odd/ even schedule means that houses and businesses with odd numbered addresses will water on odd numbered days of the month and even numbered addresses will water on even numbered days of the month.

“Compliance with this voluntary schedule would all but guarantee that there would be adequate supply for the entire system without the need to implement further restrictions,” Ramsey notes in the press release.

Ramsey explains in his press release that water use increases by up to 300 percent in the summer versus winter, putting a strain on PAWSD’s ability to deliver water throughout the entire 70-square-mile service area…

River report

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 322 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 23.

Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 1,030 cfs.

The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1941 at 4,040 cfs. The lowest recored rate was 32.1 cfs, recorded in 2002.

As of 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 23, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 170 cfs.

Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 732 cfs.

The highest recorded rate for this date was 2,160 cfs in 1979. The lowest recorded rate was 16.8 cfs in 2002.

Colorado Drought Monitor map June 22, 2021.

Drought report

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), as of June 15, 100 percent of Archuleta County remains in a moderate drought stage.

The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage dry-land crops may suffer, rangeland growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.

The NIDIS website also notes that 99.36 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.

According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, the fire season is extended.

For more information and maps, visit https://www.drought.gov/ states/Colorado/county/Archuleta.

“They’re Gonna Die”: #Drought Dooms Trout in #Colorado’s #DoloresRiver—and Probably Beyond — Field & Stream #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

From Field & Stream (Sage Marshall) (Click through for the photos from Rig to Flip):

“The stream is flowing anywhere between 5 and 9 cfs,” reports Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “Typical flows are around 70 cfs or higher.”

Such low flows are taking a toll on the river’s trout population. The lack of water leads to higher water temperatures, which directly harm cold-water species such as trout.

“We’ve got a temperature logger placed 2 miles below the dam, and we’re starting to see temperatures upwards of 80 degrees in the evenings,” says White. “We’re starting to exceed what’s called the ‘acute temperature threshold’ for trout, meaning they’re gonna die.”

Managers Expect “Total Mortality” in At Least Half of the Tailwater

The CPW manages a 12 mile stretch below McPhee Reservoir as a catch-and-release tailwater trout fishery. Given the conditions, the agency’s plan is to institute a voluntary fishing closure on the area. Regardless, White expects total mortality of the trout population in the lower half of that section, and potentially in part of the upper half as well. He is also concerned about the river’s mottled sculpin, a native cold-water species and favorite trout food, as well as warm-water native fish such as the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker, and the roundtail chub populations. That’s not to mention the insects, such as mayflies and caddis, that can’t live in high water temps…

There are two main culprits in the Dolores’ plight: agricultural water use and drought. McPhee Reservoir was a man-made project completed in 1985 primarily to store and provide water for agricultural use in the region. The reservoir itself has become a known hotspot for cliff jumping and catching smallmouth bass, but recent drought conditions have put the project’s long-term viability in question. Not only is the tailwater at 5 to 10 percent of its usual flows, but farmers are only receiving similarly meager water allocations.

Before the creation of the dam, spring runoff would provide enough water to replenish deep pools and runs in the stretch of river that is now suffering. The reservoir is expected to reach its lowest level since its inception this summer.

Intermountain West Drought Monitor map June 22, 2021.

Experts Eye Trouble for Trout Rivers Across the Region

“We’ve been in a drought for almost 20 years,” says White. “Everybody is suffering from dry conditions here on the West Slope of Colorado and region-wide in Utah and Wyoming.”

White adds that climate change is playing a role in creating extended drought conditions “without a doubt.” According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, every state in the Western U.S. is currently experiencing drought conditions.

Dolores River watershed

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

Due to continuing drought conditions, trout fishing in the Dolores River below the McPhee Reservoir dam will be adversely affected this year, said a Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist.

Water releases from the dam will probably be under 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) and could possibly drop as low at three cfs, explained Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango. In normal years, the sustained release from the dam is usually about 60 cfs. The section of river, which flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife area, from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge ─ a distance of about 12 miles ─ is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first six miles.

White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat and many brown and rainbow trout will likely die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream.

“This is going to impact the trout fishery,” White said. “I would expect to see about half or more of the trout fishery habitat suffer and lose much of the trout population.”

White suggested that anglers fish early in the day and carry a thermometer to check the water temperature. Fishing should stop when the water hits 70 degrees.

The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the Flannelmouth Sucker, the Bluehead Sucker and the Roundtail Chub. These fish are listed by CPW as species of concern. The fish are adapted to survive in warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.

“I’m worried that the natives are going to be stuck in isolated pools throughout most of the year at these flows,” White said.

Exacerbating the problem are Smallmouth Bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores but are predators on the young of the native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for Smallmouth Bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and there are no bag or possession limits.

As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will be facing the same scenario – this year and beyond.

“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb run-off and no carry-over water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.

#Monsoon2021, if it arrives, may underdeliver — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Anything would be better than a “nonsoon,” but what monsoonal rains western Colorado may get this summer are looking like they’ll be below-average in terms of the total precipitation they deliver.

“If we do get a monsoon this year, right now the indications are, the models and the outlooks are that it would be a below-normal monsoon, so it’s something that maybe we shouldn’t rely on right now” in terms of relief from drought, Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist with the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said Wednesday.

He was speaking during an online coordination meeting between reservoir operators, local irrigators, water utilities and others involved with managing and using water in the Colorado River basin in Colorado.

The region has gotten little in the way of summer monsoonal rain in recent years, adding to drought conditions and leading to the “nonsoon” references by some in the water community. So it might not take much monsoon rain this summer to be viewed as an improvement. But Strautins thinks the models and outlooks call for tempering expectations…

There is a high chance that monsoonal precipitation will develop over the Southwest in the first week of July, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Strautins said the moisture that arrived in the area in recent days wasn’t necessarily monsoonal, as it came in from the west, but it did tap into some moisture from the south…

The federal Climate Prediction Center is saying there’s a higher probability of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures in the combined period of July through September in Colorado. Those trends continue to be projected in outlooks as far out as November for Colorado, with much of the West looking like it could be drier-than-normal in the fall and the entire country looking like it could be warmer than average.

West Drought Monitor map June 22, 2021.

Dry conditions resulting in part from near-nonsoon conditions in the region last summer were followed by below-normal snowpack this winter, and much of the spring snowmelt got soaked up by parched soil rather than making it into waterways and reservoirs. Above-average temperatures only have aggravated the situation thanks to things like reservoir evaporation and increased demand for irrigation water, while increasing the likelihood of wildfires like those currently burning in western Colorado.

Cody Moser, a hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, told those in Wednesday’s meeting that the Colorado River at Palisade was flowing at only 13% of its average for this time of year. The river’s peak runoff flows this year at Cameo reached 6,330 cubic feet per second on June 6, the fourth-lowest annual peak there on record.

Opinion: Representative Crow, #Colorado AFL-CIO chief Dennis Dougherty: How #Congress can put Coloradans back to work and curb the #climatecrisis

Boulder County Solar Contractor Residential Commerical. Photo credit: Flatiron Solar

Here’s a guest column from Jason Crow and Dennis Dougherty that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

The American Jobs Plan will help Colorado create tens of thousands of good-paying, clean energy, union jobs, and move us past the worst consequences of climate change.

It’s time for our government to work for all of us, not just the rich and powerful.

Ahead of the July 4 congressional recess, our elected leaders can get it right by tackling two related priorities — getting Coloradans back to work in good union jobs and addressing climate change.

The good news is we can accomplish both with the American Jobs Plan, which would invest in updating and modernizing Colorado’s infrastructure and create good-paying, clean energy union jobs while funding training and apprenticeship programs.

The plan fits our state’s exact challenges, putting us back to work in the very act of creating a 21st century clean economy to curb climate change.

The lack of good jobs and global climate change are urgent problems. This year, wildfire season has already started – and local officials now say Coloradans should prepare for wildfires all year, not just during the summer season. These wildfires are not part of a healthy environmental cycle but will destroy homes and lives.

At the same time, thousands of Coloradans are still out of work from the aftershocks of COVID-19. Every day, families write into both of our offices, wondering when jobs will come back? When will we receive meaningful economic recovery from COVID-19? What will happen with the planned closure of so many fossil fuel and coal-fired power plants?

In our eyes, the answer is clear: we must fight for the passage of the American Jobs Plan, which would bring tens of thousands of good-paying, union jobs to Colorado by bolstering our growing clean energy economy. The jobs created by the plan will allow us to fight against climate change and safeguard our state’s natural beauty while rebuilding our economy.

As society has changed and developed, so too has the definition of infrastructure. Our investment must match that new breadth.

For example, as consumers and automakers shift toward electric vehicles, we must build charging infrastructure. That means good clean energy jobs. We must also update and retrofit municipal buildings like schools and hospitals to be resilient and energy efficient. That means even more jobs. There are many more examples.

Infrastructure investments can also help mitigate the destruction from increasingly dangerous wildfires driven by climate change. Upgrading water management systems will enable us to better manage drought conditions that fuel fires, while rebuilding with different materials can reduce ignition risk, protecting our homes and businesses. All these infrastructure upgrades require workers.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan also includes the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which is a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Crow and Sen. Michael Bennet. It will create and sustain 2 million jobs by supporting locally led forest health and watershed restoration projects.

The American Jobs Plan is about making investments in workers while simultaneously fighting climate change and robust training and apprenticeship programs must be a part of the plan. These programs will equip our workers to lead in the modern economy.

As the representative for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, a proud member of the House Small Business Committee, and chairman of the Innovation, Workforce Development and Entrepreneurship Subcommittee; and as the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, we are laser-focused on this momentous opportunity to rebuild our state the right way to adequately solve the crises we face.

The American Jobs Plan will help Colorado create tens of thousands of good-paying, clean energy, union jobs, and move us past the worst consequences of climate change. At an inflection point for economic recovery such as this one, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

We urge our colleagues in Washington to pass this bill, and we thank our friends in the Colorado labor movement for being our partners in this work.

Jason Crow, D-Centennial, represents Colorado’s 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Dennis Dougherty is the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

As #ClimateChange turns up the heat in #LasVegas, #water managers try to wring new savings to stretch supply — @WaterEdFdn #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Las Vegas has reduced its water consumption even as its population has increased. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water In-depth: Rising temperatures are expected to drive up water demand as historic drought in the Colorado River basin imperils southern Nevada’s key water source

Las Vegas, known for its searing summertime heat and glitzy casino fountains, is projected to get even hotter in the coming years as climate change intensifies. As temperatures rise, possibly as much as 10 degrees by end of the century, according to some models, water demand for the desert community is expected to spike. That is not good news in a fast-growing region that depends largely on a limited supply of water from an already drought-stressed Colorado River.

With this in mind, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), the wholesale water provider to more than 2 million people in the Las Vegas metro area, is seeking to drive down daily per capita water use (now at about 112 gallons), through wide-ranging, innovative and permanent conservation methods. The goal is to reduce daily water use to 98 gallons by 2035, even as projections indicate per capita water use could increase by nine gallons a day as the climate warms.

Meanwhile, the Colorado River Basin plunges deeper into historic drought that seems certain to lead to water supply curtailments for Nevada and Arizona. Cities in the arid Southwest for years have sought to drive down water use to stretch supplies. Now, a warming climate, continued population growth and increased water demand have raised the stakes.

In response, SNWA aims to wring more water savings out of everything from ice machines and grassy medians to industrial cooling towers, an aggressive conservation effort that could provide examples for communities throughout the Southwest.

“We have been extremely successful helping the community embrace living in the desert and adopting a conservation mindset,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, chair of SNWA’s board of directors. “However, we have more work ahead to continue helping the community – especially new residents – use water as efficiently as possible.”

A Warming Basin

Arguably the hardest-working river system on Earth, the Colorado River helps meet the water needs of 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across a huge landscape. Premised on an annual flow that was overestimated and overallocated, the river is under extreme stress as climate change drives warming temperatures.

Drought in the Colorado River Basin has pushed the water level in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada’s main water source, to a historic low. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s January 2021 Colorado River Basin SECURE Water Act Report to Congress, 2000 to 2019 was the driest stretch in more than 100 years of record-keeping. Average annual temperatures are creeping up and the past 20 years were likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years, the report said. Of the 20 warmest years on record, 17 have occurred since 1994. The trend shows no sign of abating.

A warming climate has major implications for water supply in the Colorado River Basin. A warmer atmosphere sponges up more water from the land surface and water bodies, leaving less to run off or flow to downstream reservoirs. Everything – people, wildlife and vegetation – is left thirstier.

Writing in their 2020 report, Climate Change and the Aridification of North America, climate scientists Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall explained the phenomenon of aridification: “Soils dry out in a straightforward manner understood by anyone gardening on a hot day, and they dry out faster the warmer it gets.”

Overpeck, at the University of Michigan, explained that hotter temperatures are robbing moisture from the Colorado River Basin. The drought in the Basin, he wrote in a May 18 Twitter post, “is really an ongoing temperature-driven aridification, that if combined with a true precip-dominated megadrought, will get much worse.”

SNWA’s 2020 Water Resource Plan notes that the impacts of climate change on water supply can no longer be considered as something that might happen later. Instead, “evidence supports the fact that climate change is happening now and that it will have a lasting effect on the availability of Colorado River water supplies.”

Already in the midst of a decades-long drought, conditions in the Colorado River Basin dramatically worsened in 2021, with record low inflows into the anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Over the last 20 years, Lake Mead’s water level has dropped about 130 feet. As Mead’s level continues to fall, water supply reductions increasingly kick in.

Ensuring Water Security

Lake Mead, filled by Colorado River water, is Las Vegas’ mainstay. Ninety percent of the area’s water supply comes from the lake. Nevada’s Colorado River allocation is 300,000 acre-feet per year. In the past 10 years, SNWA’s take from Lake Mead has been about 445,000 acre-feet. However, factoring in the approximately 220,000 acre-feet of treated effluent returned to Mead each year means the average net consumptive use of Colorado River water has been 225,000 acre-feet.

SNWA’s water conservation campaign has helped cut its Colorado River consumption by about 23 percent between 2002 and 2020 even as 780,000 new residents arrived.

But the thermometer is inching up. Clark County, home to about 75 percent of Nevada’s population, is projected to warm by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to SNWA. That means incorporating warming temperatures into water accounting with greater intensity and urgency.

“We have acknowledged that warming is going to go on in the valley for a very long time,” said Colby Pellegrino, SNWA’s deputy general manager for resources.

“Two years ago, we started taking a more serious approach to defining the conservation programs that would be necessary to meet our goal,” she said. “We have done a lot of work on what local temperature projections would look like in the future. While we’ve been making progress … there are going to be these upward pressures on demand occurring at the same time.”

Like some other Southwest cities that depend on the Colorado River, SNWA has an aggressive water conservation program that pairs education and outreach with financial incentives. The agency relentlessly pursues saving water wherever possible, from urging restaurant customers to forego the complimentary glass of drinking water (and all that gets saved as a result) to rebates for turf removal and ensuring the efficiency of all water-using machinery.

Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s deputy general manager for resources. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy in Phoenix, said Las Vegas and Phoenix have pursued similar approaches in that they are desert cities that emphasize certainty and the preservation of reliable water supplies.

“Both of these cities are held to a really high standard compared to other cities across the United States in terms of water security,” said Sorensen, who previously served as director of the city of Phoenix’s Water Services Department. “They are very risk-averse and spend a large amount of money and go through a very large effort to make sure that they are planning methodically for what might come.”

In Phoenix’s case, she said, that meant devising a water rate structure that charges users more for water in the summer than in the winter. Sorensen called it a “direct financial signal” for people to get rid of their lawns and lush landscaping without employing a rebate program. As a result, grass landscaping at single-family homes in Phoenix fell from about 85 percent in the 1970s to about 10 percent in 2021, she said, noting that turf for median strips has been prohibited since the 1990s.

Rewarding Innovation

One of the big water users targeted for reduction are the evaporative cooling towers that keep Las Vegas’ commercial and industrial buildings cool. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Southern Nevada’s hunt for water savings knows no limits. The uses may seem miniscule, but they add up. A glass of water not served at a restaurant saves about three gallons, when considering the amount used for dishwashing, ice production and filling the glass, said Patrick Watson, SNWA’s conservation programs administrator. SNWA subsidies for new ice machines at the region’s many golf courses saves 3 million gallons a year. The list goes on.

“We reward innovation,” Watson said. “If you have a project and it involves a new technology or an innovative way to save water, we’ll take a look at it.”

Case in point, the Ocean Spray bottling plant in Henderson. An engineer there devised a process in which industrial water is used three times during production before it gets sent out as wastewater.

“We never saw something like that before,” Watson said. “We studied it for six months, determined what the water savings was and ended up paying them an incentive.” Ocean Spray received $45,600 for saving 5.7 million gallons a year through that engineering change. Ocean Spray pursued two other water-saving innovations for which they were rewarded $27,000 by the agency, Watson said.

One of the big water users targeted for reduction are the evaporative cooling towers that keep Las Vegas’ commercial and industrial buildings cool. Transitioning that technology to other cooling processes such as air conditioning is one way to save water, more than two gallons per person per day, according to SNWA.

SNWA subsidizes tunnel washers, an amazing piece of hardware that uses less than a gallon of water per pound to wash 150 pounds of laundry in 90 seconds. Tunnel washers reduce the amount of water used per pound of laundry by three gallons, a considerable figure considering that commercial laundries in Las Vegas can wash as much as 1 million pounds of laundry each month.

The agency is now targeting homes that are on septic systems to connect them to the wastewater stream, where the effluent can be cleaned and reused or returned to Lake Mead.

Goodbye Grass

One of the highest-profile conservation tactics is the war on turf. Outdoor landscaping is the single largest consumptive water user in Southern Nevada. Las Vegas’ desert environment is an unlikely place for lush, water-guzzling lawns more suited for the Midwest and East Coast. In the hot and dry West, average customer demand for water (mostly for outdoor irrigation) can be 50 to 80 percent higher than in the humid East, according to the Water Research Foundation. Limiting outdoor irrigation is critical in a region where 4 inches of rain is considered a good year.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority offers rebates of $3 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart landscaping. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Grass requires about 73 gallons per square foot, per year, while drip-irrigated landscaping only consumes about 18 gallons, according to SNWA.

The agency for years has preached that turf only belongs where it’s regularly used, such as in parks and athletic fields. In 2003, local municipalities in Southern Nevada adopted ordinances that prohibited the installation of grass in front yards of new homes and limited backyard grass to 50 percent of the area. Grass was also prohibited in commercial developments.

For yards with existing turf, SNWA pays homeowners $3 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart landscaping. The money applies to as much as 10,000 square feet per site per year and $1.50 per square foot thereafter. It’s a popular program that’s removed more than 4,500 acres of grass, amounting to about a quarter of the turf in the Las Vegas Valley, saving about 11 billion gallons of water every year. SNWA also offers incentives for installation of artificial turf on athletic fields.

Southeast of Las Vegas, the city of Henderson adds funds to the SNWA rebate to promote turf replacement for swaths as large as 40,000 square feet in commercial, industrial and multifamily housing areas.

“We know it’s important to replace natural turf in areas where it doesn’t make much sense… so we built our program to accelerate conversions there,” Henderson’s conservation supervisor Tina Chen said on SNWA’s Water Smarts podcast. “We believe the additional incentive will entice more businesses to participate and streamline their operating costs.”

Henderson’s assistance means participants can receive as much as $120,000 for those large conversions.

A new law prohibits using Colorado River water to irrigate so-called nonfunctional (or ornamental) turf, indicated by the red circles in this photo. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Now, the focus is on eliminating as much turf from Southern Nevada as possible, with an emphasis on reshaping parts of the urban landscape installed years ago and modeled after American communities much wetter than Las Vegas.

A bill passed by the Nevada Legislature and signed into law in early June will prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental grass on non-residential properties starting in 2027. Of the more than 12,000 acres of turf in the Las Vegas Valley, 5,000 is considered nonfunctional.

“It’s only being walked on by the person that’s mowing it,” said Pellegrino, SNWA’s deputy general manager for resources.

Clinging to Turf

While turf removal has been successful, enthusiasm for it may be waning, said Tom Warden, senior vice president with Summerlin, the largest master planned community in Nevada. Warden, a Las Vegas resident of more than 30 years, said a renewed emphasis is necessary because water rates are likely to jump and SNWA’s rebate will eventually vanish.

“It is safe to say there are folks who resist it,” said Warden, who interacts with the homeowner associations and sub associations that are part of the 22,500-acre Summerlin development. He said initially many people didn’t like the idea of not having turf everywhere, but they have come to accept the much-improved desert landscape designs.

“Southern Nevadans understand that we all have to embrace a more sustainable approach,” he said. “They are getting the picture. It’s the growth of stewardship.”

Still the conservation ethic has changed significantly since the days before the drought when Lake Mead was full and spilling water.

Back then, “nobody was thinking about conservation,” Warden said. “They were building other master planned communities that were wall-to-wall turf without a thought.”

But ornamental turf is still a part of many neighborhoods.

Water use in Southern Nevada is on the rise after years of decline. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

“Homeowner’s associations in Southern Nevada are still watering more than 64 million square feet of non-functional turf,” SNWA’s Watson said. “That’s close to five billion gallons of water every year to maintain grass for purely visual effect.”

SNWA’s turf replacement has reached residents but business participation has been more challenging, SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack said. Many owners of business parks, strip malls and shopping centers are out of state and disconnected from the community.

“They don’t hear the same conservation messages on a regular basis, and they are not attuned to desert living or the need to replace grass,” Mack said.

The Road Ahead

Climate change and the plummeting Colorado River, where a 20-plus year drought is forcing unprecedented adaptation measures, are pushing desert cities toward more aggressive water management. Anticipating drier times, SNWA in 2015 took the extraordinary step of building a third intake deeper into Lake Mead, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, to ensure it could continue to draw water from a dropping reservoir. Phoenix spent $500 million to move Salt and Verde River supplies to areas of its service territory that historically have been entirely dependent on the Colorado River.

The actions signal that both cities are able to ensure reliable water deliveries, come what may on the Colorado River, said Sorensen, with Arizona State’s Kyl Center. Increased demand management and extended use of recycled water are areas “where there’s still a lot that can be done.”

John Berggren, water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo., said that as municipalities realize their irrigation demand is going to go up because of warming temperatures and their water is becoming scarcer, they’ll begin taking a hard look at landscapes to see what’s expendable. It’s important to note that the effort doesn’t stop with getting rid of ornamental turf.

Berggren said more attention is being focused on gray water reuse, where types of household wastewater from dishwashers, sinks and the like can be used to irrigate outdoor landscaping.

“All communities around the West can find more ways to be water efficient, both on the indoor and outdoor side of things,” he said. “The banning of non-functional turf is a great step on an already well-developed conservation path for Nevada, but the path is long, and I hope they continue to push the envelope. I hope more states and more water providers take that step.”

Halting irrigation to ornamental turf can free up quite a bit of water that provides a cushion for future growth, Berggren said, and even allows for putting water back into rivers.

Kirkpatrick, chair of the SNWA board, said it’s up to community leaders to push the water conservation message and get people to participate in rebate programs.

“We’ve made a lot of very impressive gains over the past 20 years, but we have more work to do, she said. “Any efforts on the part of Clark County and other municipalities to implement policies that increase sustainability will help us meet the challenge together.”