8 Arizona cities have agreed to ditch some grass. But the deal goes far beyond that

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when talking about water use in the desert.
Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when talking about water use in the desert.

Saying you want to save water is easy.

Actually using less – in the kind of quantities we need to make a difference on the Colorado River – is hard.

So, it’s understandable to be skeptical about a recent agreement among water providers in major cities across the river basin – including Tucson and most but not all cities in metro Phoenix – to use less water.

Most of the stipulations are broad and couched, which means they have a lot of wiggle room.

Even the agreement’s most specific goal – to reduce non-functional grass by 30% (the kind in medians and subdivision entrances that’s there for looks, not use) – doesn’t include a timeframe.

The document promises no specific amount of water savings. Nor is there an “or else” if cities fail to abide by its tenets.

But don’t write it off just yet.

Eye rolls at first, mostly about grass

When the memorandum of understanding surfaced in August – the brainchild of the Southern Nevada Water Authority – the reaction in some corners was an eye roll.

Nixing grass won’t do anything, critics said privately. We could spend millions of dollars to rip up every yard, park and golf course, vastly changing the look and feel of our cities, and it wouldn’t change the trajectory of the Colorado River.

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They’re right. Municipal users account for roughly 20% of water use in the basin, while agriculture uses most of the rest. We could shut off taps from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles and still not find enough water to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell – the nation’s two largest reservoirs – on life support.

But a funny thing happened on the way to “dead pool,” the point where water levels are so low that water can no longer flow out of those reservoirs to anyone downstream.

Everyone glommed on.

Well, OK, not everyone. Some still have hangups about nixing non-functional grass.

Cities have agreed to up their game

But Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson are on board. As is the Central Arizona Project, even if it has no power to tell its subcontractors how to use their water.

In fact, more than 30 water providers across the Colorado River basin – including some in every major metro area that receives its water – have promised to up their water conservation game.

But how, exactly?

After all, metro Phoenix already recycles almost all its water used indoors. We don’t drink it yet – but eventually, many of us will. For now, a huge chunk goes toward keeping a nuclear power plant cool; the rest goes toward landscaping, parks and golf courses or storing underground for later use.

Meanwhile, as in most of the basin, most municipal water is used outside, mostly on grass – and that water isn’t recycled. Nixing grass we never walk on seems like a no-brainer. If nothing else, we should ban it from new construction, because it’s hard to miss what was never there.

But what about retrofitting everywhere else? This is where upping our game gets tricky.

What we get wrong about water conservation

We tend to think that water conservation is an all-of-the-above approach. Cities should be doing all they can to incent every manner of water savings, from turf removal to toilet replacement.

But cities will tell you that they can’t do everything. They pick and choose based on what is most likely to gain the most water conservation for the effort.

Most live on shoestring budgets, with a handful of conservation specialists serving tens or hundreds of thousands of residents. Some smaller cities have one or two people running the whole shebang.

And while there is money flowing for conservation – the state set aside $200 million, plus millions more in federal dollars – that won’t last as long or stretch as far as we think because conservation has a lot of hidden costs, particularly if we want to sustain the effort.

That is, after all, one of the great misnomers about water conservation: that cities can roll out a rebate and everyone will take advantage of it – or that it will lower water use.

We assume that cities can tell folks how to reprogram their irrigation controllers to save a ton of water and that they’ll do it right the first time. Or even the third.

The reality is that conservation is a process, and a repetitive one at that. It takes outreach and follow-up, explaining and more follow-up, to ensure residents and industrial users are stretching water as far as they can.

At least it's changing the conversation

That’s why this agreement so important. If nothing else, it’s spurred a critical conversation.

Elected leaders are slowly learning that water conservation is not a one-and-done. If we want to use less water – and keep using less water – we must be willing to make a sustained investment, including the necessary staffing, to ensure that those efforts are successful.

At the same time, city water officials are recognizing that they must consider conservation actions that have long been off the table − and that they need to explain to residents and business owners how they can help in simple yet far more specific terms that don’t vary by city.

Phoenix, for example, is now telling residents that they should water grass no more than twice a week, even on the hottest weeks of the year. (You do that by running a few short cycles spaced out overnight, so the water doesn’t run off or evaporate in the heat of the day.)

It’s the kind of messaging that should be amplified and repeated on billboards and in public-service announcements across the Valley.

Because we all have a role to play in using less water – be it a dwindling Colorado River or a finite groundwater supply. The more we save now, voluntarily, means the less we must do by force or necessity later.

Ultimately, this agreement is about rethinking how cities use water, and the messages we send with those choices.

It’s a conversation that other water users − including farmers − also must have.

Reach Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix joins deal to ditch some grass. But it's about more than that