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New programs and regulations are helping Washington County's water conservation efforts

A man and woman stand outside with the sun shining brightly down on them. The woman is pointing to a plant while that man looks at the plant she is pointing at.
The Salt Lake Tribune
A man and woman stand outside with the sun shining brightly down on them. The woman is pointing to a plant while that man looks at the plant she is pointing at.

Zach Renstrom presented water conservation ideas to a homebuilder in his neighborhood several years ago – and clearly bored the man’s wife.

“One option,” Renstrom said, “is we just pay you to pull the grass in your yard.”

Suddenly she wasn’t bored anymore. “His wife looked up” from her phone, Renstrom recalls, “and said, ‘I’ll be damned if you’re going to rip out my lawn so another Californian can move here.’”

Renstrom shares the story to show how attitudes are changing in the arid southwestern corner of the state. In 2023, the area served by the Washington County Water Conservancy District, where Renstrom is general manager, was responsible for 34% of the grass ripped out and replaced statewide – even though it served only 7% of Utah’s population .

And Washington County has become the first county in the state to ban non-functional grass, or “lazy” grass, on all new commercial, industrial and institutional developments. Nowadays, Renstrom says proudly, you can even spot grass-free gardens in the Parade van Huizen display window.

“We have the most effective development standards in the state,” water conservation manager Doug Bennett said recently. “… We set the pace for the state of Utah.”

Here’s how Renstrom and Bennett worked with others to change minds and ordinances, and what’s next.

Lake Powell pipeline pipe dream

When Renstrom took over as general manager of the Conservancy District nearly six years ago, his predecessor Ron Thompson assured him that the region’s water problems were all but solved. The planned 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would bring more than 27 billion gallons to Washington County annually.

“All you have to do for the last 20 years of your career is just flip the switch, turn the pumps on every now and then and then turn the switch off again…,” Renstrom told him. “I thought, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great gig and I don’t have to run for re-election.’”

But severe drought and rising growth threw Renstrom into trouble. A drought-depleted Lake Powell has made the pipeline a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Kem C. Gardner Institute expects Washington County’s population to grow from about 200,000 today to more than 464,000 by 2060.

It doesn’t help, Renstrom says, that roughly 23% of the county’s homes are secondary or vacation homes, occupied by part-timers who aren’t counted in the census but use 90% as much water as their full-time neighbors. Add to that the 10 million tourists who visit the county each year, county officials say, and concerns about water have grown exponentially.

Some called for a construction moratorium to control growth and water use. Meanwhile, business leaders demanded guarantees that there would be sufficient water before investing in the area.

Renstrom made a game plan: new homes had to be water efficient. Owners of existing homes were to be encouraged to replace their grass with desert landscaping. And the province’s seven cities had to implement stricter water conservation standards.

‘Use the hammer’

Renstrom met with the Southern Utah Home Builders Association to make an unpopular call. Members needed to make major changes, he said, to ensure the province did not run out of water.

“I told them I was going to use the hammer,” he said. “I said, ‘There’s no way, no way I’m going to get a house built in Washington County that I can’t guarantee the house has water forever.’”

He then asked builders what they think about stricter water regulations. Their answer: They hated government regulation and would fight the district. Since the hammer didn’t work, Renstrom decided to show them the carrot, asking if they wanted to build 1,000 houses or, with water conservation changes, 2,000 houses.

After sitting down, the builders told Renstrom they wanted to build 5,000 homes.

And to achieve that goal, they pledged to support the district and do whatever it took to achieve that goal, including helping convince cities in the district to adhere to stricter standards.

“It came down to water sustainability and being able to build homes,” said Troy Ence, co-owner of Ence Homes. “Because if we don’t save water, there won’t be much development in the future.”

‘Get off your lazy grass’

Next: Lawn Lovers.

In 2022, the conservation district launched its Water Efficient Landscape Rebate program, which pays businesses and homeowners up to $2 per square foot to replace grass with landscaping that uses less water.

The ‘Get Off Your Lazy Grass’ campaign proved convincing. Ofelia Cortez is one of many who have made money; the Bloomington retiree changed her lawn last fall and received $5,000.

She likes to save money, she said, and enjoys the compliments she gets from neighbors about her new yard.

Some owners of the Gardens South Condominiums in St. George were harder to convince. Aubrey Quick, treasurer of the condominium homeowners association, said some residents objected when the association decided to participate in the program and replace half of the grass in the common areas.

“There were a few who were upset because they thought if they sold their condominium it would lose value,” she said, “because there was no grass outside their back deck and they wouldn’t be able to picnic or sunbathe in the garden or grass”

So far, the condominium complex has replaced 5,000 square feet of grass and raised $10,000, which it has used to offset the $17,000 it paid to landscapers to install xeriscaping.

“Since it was finished,” Quick said, “we’ve gotten a lot of compliments.”

A grand slam with cities

The program also offered another way – together with supporting homebuilders – to give cities a boost. The district did not want to pay the rebates to lawn mowers who lived in cities that had not passed stricter water conservation ordinances.

Homeowners who wanted to participate were told to replace their grass and then call their neighbors and city council members to ask for their support. The district would keep the check in the meantime.

The strategy helped bring the cities full circle. As of early 2024, all cities in the district have signed the new water efficiency standards.

By the district’s calculations, nearly 1.5 million square feet of grass – more than 25 football fields – has been replaced with water-efficient landscaping, resulting in annual savings of approximately 65 million gallons.

“To put that in perspective, if it was a single roll of 20-inch wide sod like you see at a nursery, it would be about 200 miles long,” Bennett said.

New regulations further limit the amount of grass in residential construction, require more water-smart features and impose a $10 surcharge for every 1,000 gallons of water new homes use over 8,000 gallons in winter, 15,000 gallons in fall and spring and 20,000 gallons during the summer.

According to the district’s calculations, the county has reduced per capita water use by more than 30% since 2000.

The county’s customers (95% of the county’s population) consumed 39,711 acre-feet of water in 2022, compared to 37,896 acre-feet in 2018, an increase of 4.8%. However, as the county’s population increased by 21% over the same period, per capita water use dropped from 177 to 153 gallons per day.

‘Building a culture of water conservation’

Water conservation is one of the two key drivers of the 20-year plan the district unveiled a year ago to secure an additional 47,000 hectares of water by 2042 to keep pace with growth.

The other is investing more than $1 billion in building more water reuse reservoirs and associated infrastructure.

Edward Andrechak, president of Conserve Southwest Utah, said the group is “encouraged by the progress made over the past five years in building a culture of water conservation in southwestern Utah.

With the changes so far, he said, “we have transitioned from our high water use with a proposed single-source solution, the Lake Powell Pipeline, to a diversified 20-year plan developed by the Water Conservancy District and built on the core principles of conservation and reuse.”

Such praise, however modest, was rare in the past. In 2021, the CBS news magazine show “60 Minutes” highlighted St. George’s high water usage. The following year, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver mocked St. George and Washington County for wasting water.

Like county officials, St. George’s leaders insist that much of the county’s bad reputation about water in the past is unwarranted. Scott Taylor, St. George’s water services director, points out that St. George is using the same amount of water as it did seven years ago, despite adding more than 8,000 connections during that period.

“We’re doing much better now than ever before,” Taylor said.

Bennett agrees, but adds that there is always room for improvement. At a recent climate event at Utah Tech University, he noted that the county still has an estimated 200 million square feet of lawn, of which about 40% is non-functional or “lazy” grass that serves no purpose other than absorbing water .

Both Taylor and Renstrom are optimistic, noting that the area has had water problems since it was settled by pioneers in the mid-1850s, and that residents and leaders have continued to find solutions.

The area’s first settlers fetched their livestock from two springs for an hour every day so they could dip into the streams and quench their thirst with what passed for clean drinking water, Taylor said. And when the water nearly dried up in the St. George area in 1910 and again in the 1980s, it led to a building moratorium, according to Renstrom.

Initially, settlers dug a ditch with pick and shovel to access mountain springs near the base of the Pine Valley Mountains to augment the water supply. In the second, the district built the Quail Reservoir and followed that in 2002 with the construction of the Sand Hollow Reservoir.

“The pattern of doing more with water, being better stewards … and building water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told listeners at a recent Colorado River Collaborative meeting in Moab, “is the legacy of Washington County.”