What is a turf buyback program and how could it help conserve Utah water?

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WEBER COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – Speaking to media and Utah residents on Thursday, Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox outlined a list of measures he wanted to take to as part of an expanded state water plan.

“We are committed to advancing more aggressive water conservation efforts,” Cox said of his administration’s plans to work with water districts and officials to build a new and improved plan.

Cox continued by listing four key areas of focus for the developing plan:

  • Statewide installation of secondary water meters
  • Integrate land use planning with water planning
  • Optimizing agricultural water use
  • Expand a statewide turf buyback program

“We’re talking about moving forward, but we also need to talk about retrofitting,” Cox remarked. “I firmly believe the state needs to institute a turf buyback program.”

Turf buyback? That can seem like an interesting and confusing term. Would a potential program involve residents literally pulling up their lawns and bringing in a section of sod to be weighed and appraised at a collection center to receive money on the spot?

Not exactly, laughs Weber Basin Water Conservancy District Assistant General Manager Jon Parry.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Parry explains to ABC4.com.

Parry continues by saying the process currently involves an application and the meeting of certain requirements by eligible participants who then can receive a rebate for their efforts to replace their turf with a more sustainable water-friendly option, such as drip irrigation or waterwise vegatation.

The goal is not to just tear up the existing turf and leave a barren wasteland in the program’s wake.

“The intent of the program isn’t simply the removal of turf and nothing taking the place where that turf remained,” Parry clarifies. “We want these programs to be sustainable in aesthetically pleasing landscapes that take the place of the turf that’s being removed. We’re not looking to accelerate any sort of, you know, community blight or things like that or air quality problems.”

As it currenlty stands, the programs and requirements for a turf buyback rebate can vary from water district to water district. Parry believes that such programs in the Jordan Valley Water District require a vegatative cover of at least 50%. In communities served by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, they’re trying to be a bit more flexible in terms of xeriscaping and other less vegatative options. Granted, community leaders still want the landscapes to look good, Parry states.

In his mind, Parry feels that turf buyback programs can be a “no-brainer” for residents. Not only are participants subject to a rebate on the cost of removing the turf, which can be around $1.50 per square foot, they can also see a lasting reduction on their water bills.

“If there’s going to be monies available and individuals want to participate, why would we want to stand in the way and not allow something to happen as long as it meets certain minimum requirements,” Parry states.

While Gov. Cox also mentioned that future development in the state would be subject to waterwise practices and appropriate rebates for participants, Parry is encouraging private citizens to take advantage of the turf buyback programs first. He also wants the future statewide water plan to priortize residents first, ahead of developers.

“We want to make sure that the incentive monies are being prioritized on the problem that already exists or the solution that we have to reducing water use and that new development and redevelopment are held to a higher standard system so we don’t have to go in there and incentivize those places,” he affirms.

As for now, there is no standardizaton of turf buyback in Utah, or anywhere else in the country. Cox’s plan is to become a trailblazer nationwide for the reduction of water use on turf landscapes by implementing a statewide program.

“These programs are typically offered at the local level, we’re not aware of any state that offers such a program. We want, I want, the Lt. Gov and I, our administration want us to be the first state to offer a statewide turf buyback program.”

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