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No grass, no problems

Texas is in the midst of one its worst droughts ever, yet one of the more arid cities in the state is seeing no noticeable drop in its reservoirs. How is that possible? Simple: They got rid of lawns years ago.

For decades this city in far West Texas defied the look of most desert communities, with neighborhoods boasting lush, green lawns and residents freely running their sprinklers.

Then a study released in 1979 showed just how close El Paso was to a crisis: At its rate of water use, the city would run dry within 36 years.

Over the next couple of decades the city took drastic measures to stabilize its water supply, undergoing a philosophical and physical facelift that included ripping up grass from many public places, installing rock and cactus gardens and offering financial incentives for residents to do the same.

Today, El Paso is among the few cities in the drought-stricken state not worrying about water. It’s a distinction El Paso leaders attribute to a conservation plan that other cities in less arid climates such as San Antonio and Austin have tried to a limited extent amid receding water resources and booming population growth.

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Over the past 20 years El Paso has paid residents a combined $11 million – $1 per square foot – to remove their grass and replace it with gravel, cement or desert plants. The city has permanent restrictions on watering days and reduced water consumption by offering special showerheads and rebates for water-efficient toilets.

The plan helped the city avoid a water crisis that other towns across West Texas now face, including the community of Robert Lee, which is rushing to find a new water source before its faucets run dry within the next several months.

Bigger cities facing diminishing water sources in less arid climates are hoping to duplicate El Paso’s success by offering money to their residents in exchange for turf.

Austin offers a $20 to $30 rebate for each 100 square feet of turf removed as part of a pilot program. So far 70 residents have replaced their grass, and the plan may become permanent if the city sees enough water savings. The city also offers up to three free water-efficient toilets per household and rebates for new dishwashers.

San Antonio offers rebates and gift certificates of up to $400 to residents who choose certain grasses, reduce their turf and cut their water consumption. Only about 360 residents have taken part since the program began in 2008, and the utility estimates savings of about 1 million gallons per year. Overall, the city estimates it can save up to a billion gallons annually from all the water-saving measures combined.

Clearly, Austin and San Antonio have a ways to go to catch up to El Paso on this front, but they do employ another effective tool for promoting water conservation, and that’s tiered pricing, in which customers that go above certain levels of usage get charged a premium. As the Austin Contrarian has repeatedly pointed out, charging the “water hogs” more both encourages conservation and helps to subsidize the more sensible among us, and it tends to be a more cost-effective policy than straight-up restrictions on use. Tiered pricing and better irrigation strategies are both central tenets of water conservation policies put forth in recent years by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club – see my posts “Drop By Drop” and “Sprayed Away” for more.

Now no one is going to argue that Houstonians should rip out their front lawns and replace them with gravel or cacti. We normally get a lot more rain than El Paso, so what works there isn’t necessarily sensible here. But there is something lawn-related we ought to be doing, and Chron gardening writer Brenda Beust Smith points it out.

It’s a proven fact. The average suburban St. Augustine lawn uses more water than all the other typically used landscape plants combined, including trees.

It’s also a fact now we have hundreds of beautiful landscape plants available that:

1 Love our heat and humidity (even this extreme cycle).

2 Require very little water.

3 Demand very little maintenance.

4 Are far more beneficial to our overall ecology than are lawn grasses.

Unfortunately, as she points out, pretty much all homeowners associations in the area make it difficult to install natives like buffalograss instead of the water-hogging St. Augustine. Sooner or later, the cities in the area are going to have to do something about that.

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5 Comments

  1. Ginger says:

    I’m really grateful right now that we have a mostly xeriscaped lawn. We take a pot of water out to the tree but ignore the little patch of grass. The condo people have removed most of the bushes and I suspect by next summer more will be gone, since the weather is supposed to be the same.

  2. […] front lawn is basically a tinderbox waiting to go up, now’s the time to pave over it.┬áVisit OfftheKuff for more on this […]

  3. Nick says:

    It’s ideas like this that can keep costs down and help our city. I understand that it’s difficult to figure out what exactly will work in Houston but any little bit helps. If they need any help, I heard IBM is coming into town to help with issues like this.

    http://www.performanceweb.org/Houston/

  4. […] story notes, El Paso has been aggressively promoting water conservation, which has resulted in them not being particularly affected by the current drought. The desalinization plant treats 27 million gallons of water a day, which is […]

  5. […] and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect […]