Utah (ABC4) — Having the greenest lawn on the street is somewhat of a competition between homeowners, but that may change soon.

Utah is experiencing extreme drought conditions and concerns this year. Amid these concerns, efforts are being taken to conserve water. There are water-saving incentives being offered and information shared about Utah’s thirsty greenery and what can be done to be smart with the state’s precious water recourses.

Matt Olsen, Assistant General Manager for Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District tells ABC4 “Around 70% of Utah landscapes are turf or lawn.” Olsen says turf equals lawn. 

He says the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, JVWCD, covers areas within the South and West parts of Salt Lake County, as well as areas outside Salt Lake City, Sandy, and Draper. “750,000 people are in our service area,” Olsen shares with ABC4. 

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District has three key services: 

  1. Develop and look at regional water supplies and figure out ways to distribute them to many communities: Identify cost-effective water to multiple sources
  2. Delivering water: Repair and replacement of infrastructure that delivers water 
  3. Managing demand: Promoting efficient use of water

According to Olsen, your grass may not need as much water as you are giving it. Things like overhead sprinklers spraying into the air cause overspray on a sidewalk or roadway and can be a great misuse of water.

Yes, grass requires a higher water requirement than other vegetation, but Olsen says where you put it can make all the difference. “Put lawn in places it makes sense,” Olsen says, adding this is in an effort to conserve water and infrastructure resources.

Olsen recommends citizens to make sure grass is planted in places it can be watered efficiently and will serve a purpose. If you do have a lawn, it is recommended you make sure it is in a central location and don’t put it in off spaces.

Olsen says conserving water for the district is “not a war against lawn.” It is simply “using lawn in a more effective way than in the past.”

In Utah, there are two common landscapes throughout the district, Olsen tells ABC4. Traditional landscapes, which are landscapes viewed as most of the area covered by grass, and local landscapes, where thirsty greenery is minimized.

Jordan Valley Water promotes landscape design approach called Localscapes. While lawn is not inherently bad, we have found that there are smart ways to approach landscape design that can allow for more efficient irrigation while still meeting the needs of the public,” Olsen shares. 

He says Localscapes are an approach to landscape design that considers Utah’s unique climate and helps homeowners create landscapes that work well here. 

Below is a quick overview of the main elements of a localized landscape:

  • Central Open Shape: In a Localscape, lawn is grouped into a central open shape. This allows sprinklers to work effi­ciently and minimizes overspray. With this design, all lawn is available for recreational use with only a single edge to trim and maintain. Some homeowners may choose to eliminate lawn altogether and create a Central Open Shape using groundcover or hardscape.
  • Gathering Areas and Activity Zones: Gathering Areas and Activity Zones like patios, play sets, trampolines, and seating areas can add functionality to a landscape while requiring no water and virtually no maintenance. In a Localscape, these elements are always placed outside of the lawn area.
  • Paths:  Paths easily connect elements of a Localscape. Paths are never made from lawn but can be concrete, pavers, stone, or compacted mulch.
  • Planting Beds: In Localscapes, planting beds are watered with drip irrigation. Because these systems deliver water directly to plants, homeowners can reduce water waste and help eliminate pesky weeds.

In the Las Vegas area, water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants. Now, they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the grass that’s left.

They also want to get rid of “nonfunctional turf” in the metro area.  “Nonfunctional turf” is grass that no one ever walks on or otherwise uses in street medians, housing developments, and office parks.

In Utah, Olsen says to match the definition of recent actions by Southern Nevada Water Authority, which classify ornamental lawn as any lawn that is placed in areas without a strong functional benefit.

Jordan Valley Water’s outdoor water efficiency standards intend to put lawn in areas where it can be used for active recreation and irrigated efficiently. Because of this, we recommend removing lawn from areas that are less than 8 feet wide or are not being used for active recreation,” Olsen shares. 

In the area Jordan Valley Water serves, several programs to help incentivize more water-efficient landscaping within its service area are offered. 

They are outlined by Jordan Valley Water below:

  • Flip Your Strip: Homeowners receive $1.00 per square foot for replacing lawn park strips with water-efficient landscaping or $1.25 if they have attended a free park strip class. Because park strips require minimal landscape design and are typically irrigated on their own zone, they provide an easy place for homeowners to begin the transition to a more water-efficient yard.
  • Localscapes Rewards: Homeowners receive rebates for installing water-efficient landscaping projects that meet Localscapes requirements for Utah-friendly landscaping. To qualify, participants must submit a landscape plan and receive Localscapes training. Rebate amounts are determined by the actual square footage of irrigated and non-irrigated areas.  On average, localized yards use 1/3 the water of a typical Utah landscape.
  • Landscape Leadership Grants: Funding assistance is also available for businesses, institutions, builders, developers, and HOA’s to install water-efficient landscaping. Project funding is determined by estimated water savings, and the community impact of a project. Examples of past projects include city parks, gas stations, apartment complexes, and community gardens.

Olsen says smart landscapes help homeowners develop an efficient lawn. Sixty percent of the water that Jordan Water distributes ends up on landscapes. “Even though you are only using it for roughly 6 months of the year you’re using 60% of it outdoors.” 

If you go from a traditional landscape to a localscape, you end up saving about two-thirds of your water a year – that’s a “66% reduction in how much water your landscape uses,” Olsen adds. 

Olsen says in November 2019, Jordan Valley Water adopted new water efficiency standards and updated its wholesale and annexation policies to encourage further adoption of these standards.

“Our Water Efficiency Standards encourage more water-efficient practices and require all new construction to install front yard landscapes that meet Localscapes requirements,” Olsen shares. “We anticipate that widespread adoption of these standards will provide greater flexibility to prepare for future drought, population growth, and water demand uncertainties.”

Why is landscape water conserving efforts so important? According to Olsen, it comes down to drought resilience. “When landscapes are designed to be more effective, your ability to sustain water delivery through droughts is increased,” Olsen shares. “Basically, the idea is you can better sustain water delivery through a drought.”

If you look at the peak in a system in water use, it generally happens in July. According to Olsen, studies show that delivering water in the service area of Jordan shows that if they can make major conservation savings now, it will ensure sustainable water supply for new growth for a decade to come.

“It has the effect of reducing the overall cost of water,” Olsen adds. “That’s our goal.”