Going for runs in the summer in Las Vegas is rough. This worst part is that you have to wake up really early, like 5am, to run before the sun has really come up all the way, while it’s still only 100 or 105, and it feels cool enough, in comparison to the 115 degree afternoons, to actually want to move. The second worst part, for me at least, was that as I ran around my neighborhood in the earliest morning light, is watching every apartment complex and gated community water their sidewalks. Sprinkler systems are the life blood of the southwestern lawn, but they always look like they are spraying over more concrete than they are grass. I’m sure that more than half the water in any given system probably makes it onto the grass on a good day, but sprinkler heads malfuntion and spray off into the distance or leak constantly, or otherwise just waste an incrediably inefficient amount of water.
Here’s the thing, I do enjoy grass. A big green field is just calls for a frisbee game, or whatever you’d prefer. Grass is the perfect place for sporting games. But, most of the grass being watered around my neighborhood in southern nevada wasn’t big enough for games. Not even big enough to play catch with your kids. Sprinklers water the sidewalks because their targets are often only a three or four foot wide strip of greenery between the concrete sidewalk and the concrete community wall. Completely useless grass. There’s more tiny strips of irrigated grass between townhomes… barely enough grass to take your dog for a bathroom break.
I’m picking on the Vegas Valley because the wastefulness of the American Lawn in particularly apparent there, but this is a much larger problem. Lawns cover about 50,000 square miles of the United States- more acreage than we use to grow corn. Most of the grass species used in lawn landscaping are not native, and maintaining the lush look of green grass can require fertilizers, herbicides, irrigation, and mowing, which consumes both time and fuel. Every hour of mowing emits as much carbon dioxide as driving your car 100 miles. Homeowners applied more chemicals per acre than farmers, raising concerns about impacts of pesticides and fertilizers in urban streams and possibly on the children playing on those lawns. And then there is the water. On average, American lawns need about 10,000 gallons of water, the size of a small swimming pool, beyond rainfall, every year to stay green, according to the EPA. It’s better than that in rainy parts of the county, and worse in the southwest.
Why am I writing this now, as snow flurries start to cover lawns? Hot summer weather, lush green grass, and sweaty hours of mowing are months away. But we now know this was the warmest year on record, with significant, crop-killing droughts across much of the country. Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that they are projecting serious shortages in the Colorado River Basin over the coming decades.
The average imbalance in future supply and demand is projected to be greater than 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060, according to the study. One acre-foot of water is approximately the amount of water used by a single household in a year. The study projects that the largest increase in demand will come from municipal and industrial users, owing to population growth. The Colorado River Basin currently provides water to some 40 million people, and the study estimates that this number could nearly double to approximately 76.5 million people by 2060, under a rapid growth scenario.
Yikes. Not enough water for 3.2 million households, or an equivalent portion of the 4 million acres of agriculture that depend on the river’s water. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado supports 22 Native American tribes, 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks, across 7 states. If water levels get to low in Lake Mead, the reservoir created along the Colorado by the Hoover Dam, the river will no longer be able to produce hydroelectric power either.
For residents of Las Vegas, the dropping levels of Lake Mead are easy to see in the bathtub ring around the lake. They already have strict rules about water conservation in place for household landscaping- watering schedules, timers, no car washing, etc. There are tax incentive programs to replace your grass with desert landscaping to cut back on water use. But many communities keep their grass, the casinos run fountains and golf courses attract tourists. Las Vegas could do more to reduce their water use. But so could all of the other arid western states, where the problem might be less dramatic, but no less important. Cutting back the lawns, for good, could be a powerful part of the process.